Will social media kill Labor's carbon tax?

As the Facebook IPO roadshow gets into full swing, it’s worth reflecting on how social media is creating a backlash against tough, but ultimately sound policy. And the carbon price is a case in point.

Thinking of buying shares in Facebook's IPO? In many respects you'd be mad not to. One in seven human beings now uses Mark Zuckerberg's creation. And while global internet usage still languishes in the low 30-ish per cent range, 5.3 billion people have mobile phones.

As those mobile subscribers upgrade to smartphones – our thrown-out touchscreen phones often have second lives in developing nations – they have everything they need to become addicted to Zuckerberg's devilishly clever invention. As Sartre pointed out, "hell is other people" – and we can't get enough of it.

Right now Facebook use is exploding across Asian markets, and was instrumental, along with Twitter and a few other social media services, in fomenting the revolutions of the Arab Spring.

It's all good, as they say.

And yet an insightful piece of analysis published on Business Spectator today gives pause for thought. Zuckerberg, it suggests, is really not as interested in monetising his creation as the good folk at Google.

General Motors has pulled its paid advertising from Facebook, saying in essence that it doesn't produce nearly the return on investment of its unpaid-for activities.

That may be true, but the speculative frenzy that will accompany the IPO will be focused on the massive growth potential – from a billion users today, to a good slice of that 5.3 billion mobile phone users tomorrow. Even low returns, with massive growth, can make a stock appealing.

However there is much to examine beyond the commercial potential of Facebook. It has become an orthodoxy that Facebook and Twitter are forces of political change – again, all for the good. As the above analysis piece states: "... social-networking sites have also enabled users to challenge social structures and break information monopolies, forcing governments to take notice."

Well yes, it's hard to argue that in some of the poorest, and most politically oppressed nations on earth, social media is like a sudden breach in a dam wall – all that stored up anger and hunger for justice bursts forth, and tyrants fall.

My reservation is in what it does closer to home – in our highly developed, and mostly democratic nation, is all this Facebooking and Tweeting making things better or worse?

On Tuesday I posed the question: "What kind of circuit breaker do we need to change the vicious political culture gripping the nation?" It was humbling to read the depth and intelligence of reader responses to that rather desperate question.

But after two years flitting in and out of parliament and getting to know politicians and their aides better than one might ever hope (I'm trying to be polite here), I think social media has a lot to do with it.

A reminder came with this insightful passage from Alister Drysdale earlier this week: "The price on carbon which morphs into an ETS after three years is unarguably good public policy ... Yet the government’s [carbon tax underpinned] budget – as well as its political pitch – on this issue is meek, mild or even non-existent. It seems afraid to face the consequences of good public policy ...
In other words, on this – as with other issues – it’s been spooked by the new media storm and by a focussed and relentless opposition" (Forget the economy, there's blood in the water, May 14)

The 'media storm' is increasingly one in the social media sphere, and Tweeting politicians have never been so directly in touch with their constituents before. That all sounds good in theory – at last the pollies are listening! But in practice, at the most macro level, politicians are becoming terrified to act on principle – it's as if each of them has a focus group following them around parliament house, sniping at their every policy suggestion.

Could this be a reason, therefore, for the rising levels of incivility and pure bile flying back and forth in parliament? The carbon tax is the exemplar of a tough policy decision that needs to be made, but on which it is easier than ever before to whip up irrational public opprobrium. In the days of 'old media' that was much harder to do.

Yes, social media topples tyrants. But in one of the most highly educated and prosperous nations in the world, it may also prevent bold policy – the kind of policies that in the past were pushed through by principled leaders. John Howard's GST was misunderstood by just about everyone, and yet he got it through and economists, and the public, finally got the message – we're better off as a result. It wasn't an act of tyranny, but a bold move by an elected representative. One wonders if it could survive a social media storm today.

My own suggestion, therefore, is for some of the more prolific Twits in Canberra (if that is the correct collective noun?) to turn off their smartphones and iPads for a day or two, and reflect on what they already know. There are great minds in our parliament, though while they are being bombarded with 'ideas', 'knowledge' and 'critique' in the social media sphere, they have precious little time to develop any of their own.

Footnote: The author is aware of the irony of publishing this article in a forum which welcomes reader comments – not unlike, ahem, social media.

Follow @_Rob_Burgess on Twitter.



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