In 1843, Karl Marx cited religion as “the opium of the people”, in a philosophical criticism of the hold of organised religion over a passive congregation.
In the late-1950s American journalist Edward R. Murrow put another spin on Marx’s famed one-liner to claim that television was the opiate of the people, in a pop-cultural observation of the hold that poor TV programming had over a passive audience.
Today’s siege and hostage situation in Sydney’s CBD showed beyond doubt how social media has become the opiate of the masses, perfectly capturing everything that’s wrong with 24/7 news and proving just how armed and dangerous the population en masse can be when they take to social media like wannabe journalists.
I work in an office about seven blocks (or less than 1km) from the Lindt Chocolate Cafe on Martin Place. From my perspective, it all seemed to start somewhere between 10 and 10:30 this morning. That’s when phones started beeping all over the office and a seemingly endless stream of text messages began delivering the ‘news’. Then the social media updates began: a terrorist with an Islamic State flag is taking hostages in Martin Place… it’s exactly what they said was going to happen months ago… he’s going to behead someone…there are bombs all over the city… Sydney’s being evacuated… really? Sydney’s being evacuated? That’s a bit extreme! What, the whole city of Sydney? Or just the CBD and the hundreds of thousands of people in it right now? I couldn’t help but be sceptical, at least to some extent.
Then the internal messaging started and it was clear the situation had quickly become quite absurd. All staff were asked to stop streaming news content on the so-called ‘security incident’ as it was slowing our I.T. systems down across the board. At the same time, despite apparently OD’ing on so much information that our systems were going into apoplexy, phone calls were flying back and forth all over the office about the ‘facts’ of what was going on. Again, they were ‘facts’ gleaned from the half-baked stories that everyone else was hearing on streaming news and reading on Twitter, Facebook and the media’s live blog updates of the drama as it unfolded. In most cases, they were also about as far from being factual as they could get and even farther away from being officially confirmed, let alone informed viewpoints.
Then, for no reason whatsoever, a colleague jumped to an irrational xenophobic conclusion about a random guy moving about the office, telling me, “I just saw one of those Sikh blokes, you know the ones with the turbans? I’ve seen him around before but not for ages… funny how he’s back today, with everything that’s going on, isn’t it? But that’s how they do it these days, don’t they? They just integrate themselves in the business, in the middle of everyone else. That’s how they get us”. These were the views of an ostensibly intelligent IC1 individual, born and bred here in Sydney, expressed in absolute seriousness. I rarely get hung up about other people’s race-related phobias, but this was one of the most absurd things I’d ever heard and – for once – I was almost lost for words. “Probably best not to overreact to this Chocolate Cafe thing, eh?”, was all I could bring myself to say, lest I say something truly offensive to my colleague.
Throughout the day there were hundreds of thousands of pointless tweets and status updates all over social media, the sum total of which was little of any real benefit and chiefly based around more unconfirmed ‘facts’, rumours, misrepresentations, misinterpretations, misinformed editorial comment and unfounded speculation. Rather than simply observe what was happening, ponder on it and maybe even do some research to educate themselves a little about what might really be going on, people chose instead to regurgitate what they’d just read somewhere else or what they ‘think’ about a situation that they patently knew virtually nothing about, contributing to an already swirling whirlpool of inaccuracies and falsehoods.
Saddest of all is that truly significant events – like the one in Martin Place today – have been reduced by the social media opiate to the same level as extreme weather events. You know how, on disgustingly hot days, everyone on social media posts statuses or tweets about what a disgustingly hot day it is? Apparently now when something huge sends an entire city into lockdown and is receiving non-stop coverage across all free-to-air and paid TV, radio and online media, everyone on social media seems to feel they have to comment on it too. Coz obviously, nobody else has noticed yet.
And what else does 24/7 news coverage of these events mean? First and foremost, aside from showing the same tiny snippets of footage over and over and over and over again, their primary goal is to fill in long periods of time where nothing’s actually happening that they can report on. And how do they do that? By finding some tenuous link between the event and anyone at all that they track down and conduct excruciatingly painful, drawn-out interviews that reveal nothing and benefit no one. Take this fine example of investigative journalism from ABC News reporter Claire Aird, as she tried just before 5pm to extract something, anything, from a young woman who’d been scheduled to start her shift at the Lindt Chocolate Cafe at 11am:
Claire Aird: When you saw her face on TV, could you read anything in to her expression?
Really, Claire Aird? What did you expect her to say she could read from her colleague’s expression? That it was like they were having a whale of a time in there? That she clearly wished it would never end and she’d never have to come out? Really?
Claire Aird: You could see another two of your colleagues? What could read into their faces, knowing them as you do, knowing them as friends, what could you see? Knowing what they’re normally like, what could you see through that window?
Really, Claire Aird? Isn’t this flogging a dead horse now? Didn’t you just get all you were going to get from virtually the same question about the first person you asked her about? Now you want her to counterpoint what the other two are normally like with how they seemed whilst holed up in their workplace by a gun-toting terrorist nut-job? Really, Claire Aird? Really?
Claire Aird: Such a terrifying thing and so shocking as well given that you do know these people so well – have you been in contact with any of their family members?
Translation: I know you haven’t been in contact with any of their family members yet because you’ve already told me that you haven’t, so please now send a heartfelt message to them just as your voice starts quivering with emotion, to really tug at the heartstrings of our listeners. Really, Claire Aird?
Claire Aird: How do you feel knowing that you were supposed to start work at 11 and had you got there any earlier, that could be you?
Oh yes, a truly riveting, insightful question there, Claire Aird. Of course she wishes she’d gotten there early. She already said they look like they’re all having a whale of a time in there while that bandana-wearing freak waves his shotgun around – how could she possibly not want to be part of it?! She feels like she’s found out her friends all had a party and didn’t invite her…
The poor young woman responded to Aird’s ludicrously – and very obviously – leading questions as best she could. It was a shameless attempt to wring as much emotion and drama from the situation as possible and, sadly, that’s the guts of 24/7 news. If you’re gonna go the whole hog, that coverage can’t end and if nothing new is happening, you have to find something else to talk about – however menial, however trivial, however tenuously linked, however leading the questions need to be and however little the discussion actually contributes to the overall story, just draw it out. Lead the poor interviewee down a path where the intention is so obvious and they have no option but to answer as they do because a) you’ve lead them there and b) they were hardly going to answer any differently anyway. It’s nothing less than painful, shameful journalism and even formerly ‘respectable’ media have lowered their standards to embrace it.
Too much knowledge can be dangerous. Too much news can be even more dangerous. But too much social media is the most dangerous of all.