New info networks v old political hierarchy

by on December 30, 2017

MUCH is made of how the 24-hour media cycle is having a disturbing influence on politics in Australia and elsewhere, but perhaps it is not so much the change to the timing of publication, but the change to the nature of the sources that is causing the disruption. In the pre-internet model, news and opinion was presented to the public by organisations which were highly hierarchical. Media corporations had a CEO, an editor, news directors, various section heads, sub-editors, a chief of reporting staff down to the lowly reporters.

They were, and to some extent still are, like military organisations, though the average reporter might be allowed a little more initiative than the average foot soldier. Nonetheless, media outfits were highly directed.

The political system was also a hierarchy – party leader, front-bencher, back-bencher, on the federal or state executive, chair of electorate machine, executive of electorate machine, party member.

Together they worked well. The political hierarchy produced the daily song sheet and it was repeated once in the newspaper and once on the TV news. It was received wisdom. The discussion agenda was defined.

Then came the internet, which is the opposite of hierarchical. Rather than the top-down hierarchies of traditional media it is a network, with links in all directions.

Using it, people have a far wider selection of sources of news, opinion and information. In response to the ease of publication people created new news and information sites where experts could speak directly to the public.

Sites such as The Conversation, Online Opinion, Pearls and Irritations, Crikey and dozens of others sprung up around the world. (So, of course, did sites run by ignorant, opinionated, non-experts.)

The result is that a greater political literacy and more nuanced discussion among people interested in politics replaced the pre-internet received wisdom. We now are seeing a trickle sideways. It is now far easier for many voters to become better informed than most MPs about a lot of issues.

It has perplexed politicians. By and large they have remained stone-deaf and trapped in their hierarchy.

Some politicians think the internet can be used to by-pass the hierarchical traditional media and talk directly to the voters. But all they have done is become just tiny nodes in the new vast network of sources of political information, and not very trusted ones at that.

In short, politicians have not responded well to this new network of political-information providers. And this new network is extremely robust, bits of it can be broken off and it self-repairs and keeps on growing.

The political hierarchy, on the other hand, is quite vulnerable. It has come under attack from the political-information network in a way that that it was never under attack from pre-internet traditional media.

In those days, media accepted the system as a given and the two major parties thrived under it.

In those days, a tamer less diversified traditional media meant constituents were less informed and less likely to bite politicians on the bum.

The vulnerability of the political hierarchy has been exemplified by the toppling of three first-term Prime Ministers in less than a decade and the growing dissatisfaction with the performance of politicians.

These days, the political-information network publishes every MP’s reiteration of the song as it happens, and people see it for the insincere, boring confection that it is. The same political-information network is equally attuned to pouncing on the slightest deviation from the song sheet as evidence of disunity.

The old political hierarchy has not been capable of adapting effectively to the attack from the information network. It sticks with the traditional hierarchical approach that the leader and maybe a couple of others decide what the message is and the troops all the way down obey. And if one or two of the troops strike the slightest discordant note it is evidence of vulnerability which becomes self-fulfilling.

Meanwhile, in the world of the political-information network, ideas and suggestions are being tossed about, being picked up and tested, found wanting and improved, generated and regenerated in a way that is not in the same world as that of the political hierarchy.

Until the world of the political hierarchy behaves like the political-information network, people who are now getting their ideas, information and opinions from that network will hold them in contempt. This is because they know that in the network world the ideas, information and opinions are tested. The ideas on the political hierarchy’s song sheet, on the other hand, are not.

The political hierarchy has to behave more like a network where ideas are put forward and exchanged; new ideas are not squashed for fear of frightening the horses; and differences of opinion or view as policies evolve are not seen as evidence of “disunity”. Otherwise, they can only expect disconnection and distrust.

The result of people enriching themselves from the information-rich political-information network and the trickle-across phenomenon can be seen in opinion polls, especially this year.

Despite the best efforts of people with vested interests and narrow ideologies to spread misinformation, time and time again the opinion polls show the public getting it right and the political hierarchy getting it wrong.

The marriage opinion poll was the prime example. And other polls show that the people know that the climate is changing, that humans are causing it and we must do our bit to do something about it or the world will penalise us; that the tax system needs fixing and on and on and on. On issue after issue the public are getting it right and the political hierarchy does nothing.

The bizarre thing is that for so long politicians have spoken about the “wisdom of the Australian people”, but at the very time that the political-information network is making them wiser the politicians are tending to ignore them more.

Thirty years ago, politicians were derided for adopting policy “according to the latest opinion poll or focus group”. Maybe there was a point then, but not any more, with a population better informed by the political-information network.

We now are crying out for politicians to adopt policy according to the latest opinion poll simply because the voters are informed by the new political-information network and the politicians simply cannot cope with that.

It is not so much the 24-hour news cycle but the mass of networked worthwhile content it gives voters that is discombobulating the political hierarchy.

Thirty years ago we had a political hierarchy and a media hierarchies. Now, we still have a political hierarchy, but we have internet-based media networks. The mismatch has been quite destructive.
CRISPIN HULL
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 30 December 2017.

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