The Liberal Party has had yet another web-based scandal over the weekend, one born of ructions in the New South Wales branch, and which has now managed to involve Malcolm Turnbull’s office. Turnbull needs all this like a hole in the head, and he moved quickly to "accept the resignation" of the staffer involved. Another implicated staffer resigned over the weekend. But this won’t be the last such incident — it points to the problems arising from the temptations of online "shit-sheeting", and the typical career path of modern-day political staffers. And, as with many other incidents, it suggests that although the web may not be "democratising" politics in any simple way, it’s certainly shown itself to be potentially disruptive.
The shit sheet has a long, ignoble history in Australian political life. Such smear campaigns began as the circulating of single sheets or pamphlets presenting damaging and often false smears about political opponents. Typically, for obvious reasons, the authors of shit sheets will try to remain anonymous where possible. They crop up now and again in parliamentary election campaigns (think back to the Liberal Party’s antics in Lindsay in 2007), but they are more common in the half-lit worlds of internal party elections, preselections, and especially junior or student politics. Revealing, as they often do, the bitter divides and personality conflicts within organisations, it’s usually best for everyone that they don’t finish up as items for general consumption in the wider media. But nowadays, as shit sheeting is increasingly carried out online, the barriers which used to help keep these campaigns inside parties and out of the public eye have become much more porous.
In my own roaring days in youth politics, the web was not so open to inspired vindictiveness — back then you actually needed some tech skill to put material online. Photocopied smears were still the norm, such that circulation was more or less limited to its intended audience. Sending them via email was not unheard of, but that risked much by making shit sheets traceable to their authors. But anyone could make and circulate a handbill without leaving any telltale sign that they were the author. Effectively, this was publishing for a tiny niche audience — and a relatively closed social network — who knew the personalities involved, and who likely even accepted shit-sheeting as part of the rough and tumble of grassroots politics. But just like personal information and communications, real damage often occurs in the digital age because of the ease with which things can circulate beyond a social network with certain common baseline assumptions, and out into a much wider public whose reaction cannot be predicted.
The big difference now is that it’s easy to post material online for a potentially global audience. However ill-advised it may be to fight an internal party spat across blogs, social networking services or video-hosting sites, apparently for some the temptation is too much to bear. It seems particularly irresistible to younger operatives on the conservative side of politics. Last year, two hard-Right Victorian Liberal staffers were sacked for maintaining an attack blog smearing the Victorian Liberal Party’s parliamentary leader. And now, two young Liberal staffers associated with David Clarke’s ultraconservative New South Wales Liberal grouping have lost their jobs after adapting a long-running YouTube meme to attack rivals within the NSW Liberal Party.
The video is yet another iteration in the now-venerable "Downfall" meme, which alters the subtitles in the climactic scene of the 2004 German-language Hitler biopic to illustrate some episode of public failure. This time it’s Alex Hawke’s turn to be Hitler, lamenting his failure to defeat the Clark forces in NSW branches. As Downfall videos go, it’s not a bad one — it at least follows the meme’s conventions, unlike a recent uninspired offering on the iSnack 2.0. But it’s proved to be an expensive joke for the staffers concerned. One of them was apparently Turnbull’s ghost-tweeter, and here he immediately demonstrated himself to be unsuitable to the task of curating a central element of the leader’s online presence. He should have known that by publishing this to YouTube he would attract the interest of the mainstream media, for whom any sign of internal coalition tensions are a juicy story. It’s not impossible that incidents like this emphasising internal dissension could make the Liberal Party’s impending victory in NSW less emphatic than it ought to be, and make for an even worse result for the Libs in the next Federal election.
The fact that he didn’t appear to consider that this was potentially damaging to his boss and career-limiting for him, though, can’t be attributed solely to the lure of easy anonymity on the internet. It also says something about the political career path which, on both sides of politics, sees very young people — often not long out of university — occupying often relatively important staffer positions.
The Downfall video is the work of someone whose generation is often comfortable with the read-write web, but also of an individual who has passed too swiftly from the shit-sheeting world of junior and factional politics to the leader’s office. Demonstrably, he’s been unable to predict what would happen if the mainstream media were to circulate this material to an audience who would regard such a video simply as a sign of pettiness, division and skewed political values. It’s a cliche, perhaps, but a bit more real-world experience outside politics might make the antennae of young staffers a little more sensitive in such circumstances.
There’s a lesson here for political parties, for other organisations and for individuals about the fragility of online anonymity, the way in which the internet is no respecter of closed social networks and safe in-jokes, and the way in which online smears can bounce back on their originators. Let’s hope, though, that it’s not another setback for Australian political parties coming to terms with the web. After Malcolm Turnbull’s encouraging, commonsense chat at Media 140 in Sydney last week, there is reason to hope that even the Liberals will start taking a positive, proactive view of online engagement, after dragging the chain in the past. They badly need to. But acts of stupidity like this may encourage people to heed more risk-averse counsel.
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