TRUE OPINION: What’s next for the YouTube conspiracy theorists with fancier cameras at Sky After Dark after the Liberal Party’s devastating federal election loss, wonders Mileta Rien.
In the wake of the Liberal party’s bolloxing at the ballot box, pundits on Sky After Dark have undergone a public soul-searching, acknowledging that their reading of the national mood was catastrophically wrong. In this they have taken their cue from the humility displayed by the Liberals themselves, who have signalled a change of direction in their choice of a new leader committed to winning back the traditional moderate Liberal heartland.
Paul Murray, Peta Credlin, Andrew Bolt and Sky’s other assorted ghouls have all doubled down on their positions, taking the objectively bizarre line that Morrison drove his party into the ground by pandering to “woke” inner-city elites. And of course the Liberal Party has replaced Morrison with perhaps the only man (yes, another man) capable of being even more divisive: Peter Dutton.
The man who walked out of the 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations, blocked the Australian Defence Force’s plan to add Indigenous names to military bases, and who criticised the Defence department for pursuing ‘a woke agenda’ after it held morning teas where staff wore rainbow-coloured clothing in honour of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia.
Dutton knows his base, and it’s the Sky After Dark audience. Here’s a sample of the Facebook comments under the Sky News video of his first press conference as Opposition leader:
With the majority of Australian voters now clearly embracing climate action, it’s tempting to dismiss these people as an irrelevant lunatic fringe. Some of the commenters are almost certainly bots, and many of them are Americans. This is because Sky increasingly caters to an international audience via its social media presence. According to the station’s own 2021 figures, only 26% of its viewing audience comes from Foxtel subscriptions. The channel’s biggest viewing numbers come from NewsCorp Australia websites (45%), YouTube (36%) and Facebook (35%).
Cam Wilson at Pedestrian and The Guardian’s Andrew Fowler and Anne Davies have pointed to Sky’s adoption of the Fox News strategy – relatively balanced news reporting by day, stable of ranting right-wing ideologues by night – and courting of an international audience by covering issues outside Australia, particularly American-centric politics and culture; Joe Biden’s supposed dementia is a big issue for them at the moment, and Peta Credlin recently weighed in on gun violence following the most recent school shooting (too-realistic video games are the problem, apparently).
This explains why Sky After Dark’s local viewership has enthusiastically appropriated the vocabulary and worldview of US conservatives. These Australians identify with the Americans who felt invisible during the Obama years – working-class, often rural, conservative voters hit hard by the GFC – who then gleefully seized on Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment and turned it into an identity.
Some electorates feel abandoned by both the Labor and Liberal parties and overlooked by minor ones, and their disaffection with the system is valid. We ignore them at our peril, because as a group they are especially vulnerable to ‘alternative facts’.
Sky After Dark is cynically feeding its viewers a steady diet of misinformation and doom-mongering, while simultaneously accusing ‘mainstream media’ of doing the same, thus training its viewers to resist fact-checking from other sources. Sky’s pundits are basically YouTube conspiracy theorists with fancier cameras.
If the Sky After Dark shock jocks convince enough voters that climate change is a hoax in time for the next election, that’s three more years’ investment in coal and gas at the expense of renewables, three years of foot-dragging (at best) on emissions targets. Three years our species cannot afford to lose.
So, can anything be done?
While writing this column, I’ve been listening to interviews with friends and relatives of people who’ve fallen down the conspiracy-theory rabbit-hole, to the great detriment of their personal relationships. The interviewees were often in despair, because nothing they said or did seemed to cut through. But they kept trying.
Here’s Kathrin, on ABC podcast Science Friction: “Trying to send fact-checking articles … I try never to attack the people. I want them to treat me with respect so I will always treat them with respect … but I really feel that I have to speak up because otherwise it becomes normalised. It’s exhausting, and it’s so much easier to just go, like, “block, delete, I don’t want to talk to you anymore”, but you can’t do that because … otherwise you’re just confirming their theory that the whole world is against them and they’re right and I’m brainwashed by the mainstream media”.
This level of effort is worthwhile when trying to maintain bonds with friends and family. Is there any point attempting to change the minds of strangers on the internet, even when their false beliefs on COVID or climate have real-world consequences for all of us?
Like everyone I’ve had my share of online arguments with strangers, and like most of us I’ve sometimes succumbed to the temptations of point-scoring, name-calling and snark. In the short term it’s fun to feel like you’ve won the argument, even when ‘winning’ only consists of having the last word. But I’ve also had that wearying experience of engaging in good faith and having my earnest arguments met with condescension and ridicule. Sometimes I keep trying anyway, because the alternative is that everyone retreats into their own echo chamber and the conversation becomes even more polarised. Mostly though, I no longer have the time or the energy. Trolls gonna troll.
Ultimately, this problem is too big to be solved at the skirmish level. What’s really needed is a regulation body that will actually crack down on media conglomerates when they start acting like tinfoil-hatted flat-earthers. Following voters’ overwhelming rejection of Rupert Murdoch’s regressive messaging, maybe The Australian Communications and Media Authority will be emboldened to finally stand up to him.