Why ABC reporter Lisa Millar gave up on Twitter

Lisa Millar was not planning on making a statement when she closed her Twitter account a week ago. “I just deactivated it, I did not announce it”, the co-host of ABC TV News Breakfast said. “I wasn’t trying to fuss.”

But with 55,000 subscribers and the national profile that his on-air role brings, it was inevitable that people would take notice. And inadvertently or not, his decision to join the ranks of Australian journalists who have decided they can live without what was once hailed as the democratic ‘public square’ of social media – Waleed Aly, Stan Grant, Hamish Macdonald among them – shone the spotlight on just how toxic it has become to many professionals.

Millar says she took little pleasure in stepping down from a platform that has proven to be extremely useful. “When I was in the Washington office, we first saw news of the Boston Marathon bombing on Twitter. It is still the best platform for the latest news, including getting daily COVID case numbers. But I have to balance that with the level of animosity directed at me, which went way beyond criticism of my work.

Millar has been accused of political bias, particularly in her COVID coverage. The fact that his father Clarrie Millar represented the Country Party in Queensland was seen as evidence of the Coalition’s bias in his reporting. And tweets making those observations – alongside gender-based abuse (a common feature of attacks on women journalists on the platform) – were visible to him in real time during his presentation.

“It got to a point where I couldn’t do anything and the balance had totally shifted,” she says. “I couldn’t stop the constant barrage of criticism while we were on air. I do 15 hours of live television a week – there are going to be words coming out of my mouth that aren’t quite right. “

Millar used in-app tools to filter out abusive comments. These range from the automated, machine-learning detection of words that may be offensive or abusive to muting repeat offenders. But that still left her exposed to dozens of problematic messages, rather than the hundreds she saw before applying the filters.

Although it has been criticized for not doing enough to tackle abuse, Twitter says it is on a mission to “do[e] it’s easier to follow and participate in healthier conversations ”on the platform, thanks to tools including the digital equivalent of a“ do you want to review this? prompt when a user creates a passionate post. It is also Beta tests a “safe mode” that would allow users to block accounts using “potentially harmful language”, such as slurs or hate speech, for seven days.

“We want you to enjoy healthy conversations,” the company said in a blog post this month. “Our goal is to better protect the individual who receives tweets by reducing the prevalence and visibility of harmful remarks.”

7.30 Presenter Leigh Sales has been criticized for her coverage of the Victorian blockades. Credit:Daniel Boud

But these good intentions conflict with the reality that Twitter rewards and profits from the conflict. The more inflammatory a message, the more likely it is to gain attention, be liked, debated, shared or cited. It’s all about engagement, and that’s Twitter’s main motto as it seeks publicity in front of its 192 million monthly mDAU (monetizable daily active users) worldwide.


Writing about her own Twitter experience this week, Millar’s colleague and longtime friend Leigh Sales asserted that “bullying and harassment…

While it appears that a special level of vitriol is targeting women on the platform, the abuse goes beyond gender. Hamish Macdonald said last month that criticism he received on Twitter as a host of Q + A “Was overwhelming at times. It became something that I couldn’t handle on my own, and I couldn’t do without.

Macdonald said it spread to the real world as well and even followed him there when he left Twitter in January. “And it was pretty isolating, and it wasn’t something I had dealt with before.”

According to Dr Alex Wake, head of the journalism program at RMIT, abuse of journalists on Twitter “is actually an occupational health and safety issue, and the media have a duty to protect their staff. Yes, journalists need to be resilient, and always should have been – journalism is steeped in trauma – but attacks on social media are relentless, often personal, and are often read when people are at home with their kids. family.

Dr Wake says it’s not just an individual’s feelings or sanity that is at risk. “The abuses have the effect of silencing journalists in these spaces – and it hurts our democracy. “

“The abuses have the effect of silencing journalists in these spaces – and it hurts our democracy. “

Dr Alex Wake

This is certainly the view of the Victorian Parliament Electoral Matters Committee, which this week tabled its report on the impact of social media on elections. “Abuse of journalists and the media can harm our democracy by negatively affecting the ability and willingness of journalists to cover important political stories,” the committee members wrote. “It can also reduce media diversity by discouraging participation from people targeted for their gender, race or other attributes. This translates into poorer results for viewers and a less informed voting public. “

Leigh Sales, who has been accused of LNP bias for questioning the Andrews government’s response to COVID, suggested this week that “it is left-wing Twitter users who are targeting ABC reporters for abuse.” . Millar also believes the platform has drifted to the left since she started using it in 2009, but adds that ABC reporters are using it on both sides.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who was viciously attacked over a Facebook post on the day of ANZAC 2017 in which she sought to highlight the plight of refugees and Palestinians, believes the description of the intimidation on social media in crude political terms is wrong.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied says the abuse on social media is paltry compared to attacks from the press and right-wing politicians.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied says the abuse on social media is paltry compared to attacks from the press and right-wing politicians. Credit:Kristoffer Paulsen

“People love to make it a ‘left versus right’ thing, but such positions are a distraction, obscuring the underlying power dynamic,” she says from London, where she now lives. “All sides of politics have bullies. But not all sides of politics have the same levels of access to power. Twitter is not the Murdoch Press, nor Parliament.

“The social media attacks were not the reason I left Australia. Hundreds of thousands of words in the mainstream press, bullying by politicians, overnight abuse by media experts, and the silence of many so-called leaders have been much more effective in destroying my security and my ability to contribute. .

Mike Carlton is another who has resisted abuse from the right on social media – he has resigned from The Sydney Morning Herald in 2014 after responding to a reader’s comments on a column critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza – but remains an active commentator on Twitter and an advocate for the platform.


“The stories are often going to break out there first, and that can be extremely helpful in terms of contact tracing,” he says. “And despite all the talk about stacks and trolls, there is actually a reasonably civilian community out there.”

In her experience, “attacks come more from the right, which can be vicious, malicious and utterly defamatory” but asserts that “women are more often abused than men”.

“A lot of people on Twitter and elsewhere see all of this through the prism of their own biases,” he says. “Twitter is just a reflection of society.”

And right now, aflame with life with the lockdowns, uncertainty and fear stemming from COVID, and the ever-growing tensions brought on by the so-called culture wars, this society is quite agitated.

“It’s like it feels good if you put your hand on the horn – that’s what people feel when they let go of their anger on Twitter,” Millar says. “Then they continue to live their lives. But if you get a barrage of those horn blasts all the time, it’s really, really draining.

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Email the author at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin

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