A panel of self-proclaimed 'warriors' couldn't explain why we need to win Twitter | Jeff Sparrow

The three conservative commentators said what they opposed on Twitter (the left) but not what they supported (other than the defeat of the left)

How do you win Twitter? More importantly, why would you want to?

On Tuesday night, the first of those questions drew 40 or so people to the Golden Gate hotel in Melbourne for a peculiar event hosted by the Menzies’ Research Centre (MRC).

Unfortunately, by the end of the evening the answer to the second query remained just as elusive as at the beginning.

The MRC describes itself, rather oddly, as both “associated with the Liberal party of Australia” and as “an independent thinktank”. Its advertisement, illustrated with an image of Winston Churchill impaling Larry the Twitter Bird on his two chubby fingers, promised “a short masterclass in what has become an essential skill of the 21st century” under the tutelage of “a panel of Twitter warriors”: Rita Panahi of the Herald Sun, Chris Kenny of the Australian and “fearless MP” Tim Smith.

Kenny, in particular, did not mince his words.

Twitter, he explained, was a “feral sewer”, dominated by a crowd that Robert Menzies would have derided as leaners and not lifters. Those in the audience needed to understood that, if they signed up for accounts, they would be “going behind enemy lines”.

It seemed, to be honest, a rather daunting prospect, particularly given the advanced age of many of the attendees. How were they survive in either a cesspit or a warzone? To that end, our warriors offered some advice useful to anyone on social media, irrespective of their political inclinations.

Rita Panahi, for instance, described the sexist and racist abuse directed her way, and recommended a judicious use of the block button.

Smith noted that Twitter rarely changed minds but cost plenty of people their jobs. He suggested that it was more useful for gathering breaking news than anything else.

Even Chris Kenny struck, for a moment, a conciliatory tone. At its best, he said, social media could be like visiting a good pub, a place in which you might swap remarks with friends as you watched the footy, before listening into an interesting conversation between strangers.

All too soon, however, Kenny led us out of the cosy, metaphorical hotel and back into the sewer – or perhaps the battlefield. The right, he said, might not convince people on Twitter, what with all the ferals and ABC journalists congregating there.

Nevertheless, he “felt the need to go in there and break up the party, confront them with some facts, throw in some truth bombs … And now and then you take someone out, now and then you have a hit, which is great fun.”

Great fun, indeed.

But what exactly did such victories achieve?

In the past, the relationship between conservatism and Twitter has been a love that dare not speak its name, with many righties determinedly hostile to the platform as a whole.

In 2009, Campbell Reid, the group editorial director for News Ltd, explained that his company felt “very uncomfortable” with its journalists using the platform.

During 2012, the Daily Telegraph took a break from crudely photoshopping its enemies to launch a front-page crusade against, cough, the “faceless Twitter bullies” in its now largely forgotten “Stop the Trolls” campaign.

Throughout the work of Bill Leak, the right’s martyred saint, the blue Twitter bird invariably denoted angry radicalism, just as a gimp suit conveyed the Safe Schools program and exaggeratedly thick lips symbolised Aboriginality.

Panahi’s colleague Andrew Bolt famously called Twitter “a sewer of hate” – right up to when Rupert Murdoch began tweeting, at which point Bolt declared the platform to be “the coolest new medium”. Murdoch’s own adventures in Twitterland were wonderful indeed, with the newspaper tycoon announcing that flight MH370 was probably hidden in “northern Pakistan”, attacking “the Jewish owned press” for being “consistently anti- Israel in every crisis”, and dismissing criticisms of casting in the film Moses as misplaced on the basis that all the Egyptians he knew were white. Despite his eccentricities (many of his effusions were barely literate), Murdoch embraced social media in much the fashion as Kenny advised, deploying his @rupertmurdoch account to fight his traditional enemies: the leftist elitists who ruthlessly oppress helpless billionaires.

In his book, The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin associates conservatism neither with a set of principles, nor with any particular interest in the preservation of the status quo. Rather, he says, it was generally shaped both by and against the left, with conservatives embracing a radicalism of their own to destroy movements for change.

The right’s determination to “win Twitter” illustrates his point.

For instance, Fred Pawle, the MRC’s director of communications, opened proceedings on Tuesday by lauding the virtues of free speech. A few minutes later, he welcomed on stage Chris Kenny, a man notorious for the defamation suit he slapped on comedians who triggered him.

Similarly, throughout the evening, the panelists mocked the Twitterati for embracing the victimology of identity politics – and then, almost in the next breath, they proclaimed themselves to be Twitter’s true victims, as they resorted to now ubiquitous (and largely unrecognised) identity politics of the right.

Our warriors, in other words, knew what they opposed on Twitter (short answer: the left) but struggled to articulate what they supported (other than the defeat of the left).

To borrow a phrase from Christopher Hitchens, this was a herd of antis in desperate search of a climax.

Interestingly, Murdoch’s own career on the social media battlefield came to an abrupt end on 4 March 2016 – the day he tied the knot with Jerry Hall. “No more tweets for ten days or ever!” he exclaimed in his final dispatch. “Feel like the luckiest AND happiest man in world.”

That last tweet implicitly cast Twitter as a platform particularly suited to the unfortunate and the miserable. It’s a message worth contemplating by those determined to exacerbate social media’s innate tendency to conflict. There are, after all, some games that you win only by refusing to play.

• Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist


Jeff Sparrow

The GuardianTramp

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