Spare us the Google-eyed crackpots: the case for a viable news business

We’re sorry, this service is currently unavailable. Please try again later.

Advertisement

Opinion

Spare us the Google-eyed crackpots: the case for a viable news business

The Jewish bankers control the secret space lasers, don’t you know? That’s how they started the bushfires in California. The fires were lit from space to clear the route for a proposed high-speed rail line.

The US congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene spelt it out on Facebook, so it’s not a secret any longer. She’s clever to figure it out, no doubt about it: “Too many coincidences to ignore,” as she said, putting the former Governor of California, Jerry Brown, at the centre of the conspiracy. Greene is a Republican, Brown a Democrat, naturally.

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John Shakespeare Credit:

And, at the end, Congresswoman Greene adds the standard disclaimer: “But what do I know? I just like to read a lot.” As Donald Trump said when caught peddling blatant lies years ago: “Hey, I only know what’s on the internet.”

The healthy response to such silliness is laughter. As filmmaker Avishai Weinberger said: “Mom says it’s my turn on the Jewish Space Laser.” Or The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus: “This Jewish space laser thing makes no sense to me. Because, as every Jewish mother knows, you could put an eye out with that.” A third commenter says he would have been more inclined to go to Hebrew school if only he’d known they had space lasers.

Loading

But it’s hard to laugh at Greene’s incitements to murder. Among her crackpot musings on her so-called “social” media accounts are exhortations to commit lethal acts against fellow citizens. To put “a bullet to the head” of the US Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Democrats’ Nancy Pelosi, she urged in 2019, for example.

When the mob broke into the Capitol last month, some went hunting for Pelosi to do exactly that. Greene, a 46-year-old gun advocate from Georgia who won a seat in the House in the November elections, cheered the mob on.

The US House voted to remove Greene from membership of two congressional committees this week as her history of hate speech and incitements were exposed, but she remains a sitting member of the US legislature and a part of the Republican House caucus. Yes, she is a US lawmaker.

Gratefully, the Australian Parliament has no one as crazed or as odious as Marjorie Taylor Greene. Does it have members peddling crackpot theories? You bet it does. Craig Kelly is actually a pleasant fellow and appears sane in person, but the member for the safe Liberal seat of Hughes in Sydney’s south is a committed fringe-dweller inhabiting the outskirts of rationality.

Advertisement

Like Greene, he climbed aboard the juggernaut of Donald Trump’s popularity, aping his views on coal and hydroxychloroquine and making excuses for Vladimir Putin’s outrages. Kelly continued to sing along with Trump’s anti-democratic anthem even after the president’s juggernaut ran into the electoral ditch; Kelly claims that the Capitol riots were actually a “false flag” operation carried out by the political left just to discredit Trump. The Australian Medical Association’s president, Omar Khorshid, has described Kelly’s COVID-related advocacy as “crackpot”.

Loading

Why does an outwardly sensible Australian politician carry on like this? For the same reason Greene and many other Trump imitators have – because it wins attention. Craig Kelly has 96,000 followers on Facebook and 10,000 followers on Twitter. Other backbenchers envy these numbers. For a 57-year-old MP who’s been languishing in the wastelands of backbench irrelevance for a decade and without prospect of promotion, this sort of validation is political crack.

Remember the old adage that “a lie can travel half-way round the world before the truth has got its boots on”, as British Prime Minister James Callaghan said in 1976? The internet – and “social” media in particular – has intensified this effect and made it precisely measurable. A 2018 study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tracked about 126,000 news stories tweeted by 3 million people between 2006 and 2017. It found that “it took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1500 people” on Twitter. Today a lie can travel six times around the world before the truth has its boots on.

Why? Because of the emotional impact of fake news. Say the MIT researchers: “False news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust.”

Political lies, it turns out, are the gold medallists of the misinformation Olympics. “False political news also diffused deeper more quickly and reached more than 20,000 people nearly three times faster than all other types of false news reached 10,000 people.”

“Social” media, in other words, turns crackpot politics into political crack. Donald Trump knew that. He built a movement on it. That’s why people like Kelly do it and keep doing it. To get attention. This suits unprincipled or desperate politicians beautifully; it disadvantages the serious or sane.

As for the “social” media companies that are the drug runners, political “polarisation is a great business model,” in the words of Deb Roy of MIT’s social media lab.

Where does it end? We know where it led on January 6 in the US with a president making a lunge to rule as a dictator and his shock troops storming the Capitol.

Scott Morrison had long tolerated Craig Kelly’s nuttiness in the name of free speech, but this week drew a line. “Where do you draw the line?” poses a senior government figure. “At public health. Kelly’s misinformation was a threat to public health.” The Prime Minister, after a couple of false starts and the embarrassment of watching Kelly roundly crushed by Labor’s Tanya Plibersek in an impromptu corridor debate, eventually demanded that Kelly control himself.

Craig Kelly and Tanya Plibersek argue in the hallway of Parliament House on Wednesday.

Craig Kelly and Tanya Plibersek argue in the hallway of Parliament House on Wednesday.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

The British tech expert and journalist Jamie Bartlett opened his most recent book, The People Vs Tech, with these words: “In the coming few years either tech will destroy democracy and the social order as we know it, or politics will stamp its authority over the digital world.” He saw it coming. He wrote that two years ago.

Loading

Australia finds itself at the forefront of trying to “stamp its authority over the digital world”. This is happening on a number of fronts. The big issue in Canberra at the moment is the government’s proposed digital media bargaining code. Morrison’s government is preparing to legislate the code into place.

The purpose of the code is to make the US-based multinationals pay Australian professional media outlets for using their news. Thus far, the Big Tech firms simply distribute the local media companies’ news to the users of Google or Facebook. So the local outfits pay the reporters and editors to produce the news which is then distributed by the American digital firms. The tech giants pay nothing for it. The Australian businesses bear all the costs; Google and Facebook bear none yet get the revenue from the online ads that the news stories attract.

The local publishers want a return on their products. The Australian news outfits have haemorrhaged ad revenue to Big Tech over the past decade and a half. The Morrison government, with Labor’s support in principle, agrees that the Australian publishers should share in the revenue to allow them to stay in business.

Loading

If Big Tech bleeds them completely dry, disinformation, conspiracy and propaganda would go from being readily available to being dominant. Google and Facebook agreed in principle and entered negotiations on a voluntary revenue-sharing formula. But their negotiations with the biggest media companies, notably News Corp and Nine, publisher of this masthead, failed. The government is now promising a mandatory code instead.

This was what provoked Google into threatening to turn off its search engine for Australian users. It was a bad misjudgment. It failed to move the government and only hardened public and political opinion against Big Tech. “These guys live in a bubble of their own existence and think everyone loves them,” says a senior government figure. “These guys are the tobacco companies of 10 or 20 years ago.”

Would Google really shut off its search engine for Australia and walk away from some $4 billion a year in revenue? Australia’s e-safety commissioner, Julie Inman-Grant, says Google’s tantrum is not new: “They’ve done it before.” She recalls that, when the federal government planned to create her office of e-safety six years ago to protect Australian children from online harm, Google and other Big Tech firms threatened to quit Australia in protest. Of course, they did not. “We’ll wait and see how serious they are.”

Loading

When Google made its threat, Microsoft took it as an opportunity. Its chief rang Morrison and offered to fill the void with its own search engine, Bing. It’d be happy to invest in Australian media businesses, Microsoft said.

The threat prompted The Financial Review’s tech editor, John Davidson, to try the non-profit search engine, Duckduckgo. He found it “looks a lot like Google, only without the creepy and deceptive ads”. Davidson bid Google farewell: “Goodbye Google. Don’t let your bags of unpaid taxes slow you down on the way out.”

Google, realising it had overplayed its hand, phoned Morrison this week. He made the point that if the Big Tech firms simply negotiated with the Australian media companies in good faith, they could strike a voluntary deal. The compulsory code was a back-up, not the first and only course. A parliamentary inquiry is to report next week; Morrison hopes to legislate within weeks.

The head of the US News Media Alliance, David Chavern, representing some 2000 American news publishers, says Australia’s choice was a cutting-edge move that “is not only about the future of news publishing but also whether we can build communities based on facts instead of misinformation and hate”.

We’ll see what happens. The Australian government is focused on civilising the buccaneer behemoths. Like a laser.

Peter Hartcher is political editor.

Start your day informed

Our Morning Edition newsletter is a curated guide to the most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up to The Sydney Morning Herald’s newsletter here, The Age’s here, Brisbane Timeshere, and WAtoday’s here.

Most Viewed in Politics

Loading