Musk comment highlights Australian journalism’s failure

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An opinion piece about Elon Musk’s Twitter antics in this morning’s Australian Financial Review epitomizes for me the decay of Australian journalism and its supposed news media.

The AFR piece by Karen Maley (paywalled) may be clearly labelled opinion, as opposed to ‘news’, or something else, but it’s all part of the same beast.

Maley’s piece gets the nonsensical lead: ‘Investors are divided about whether Elon Musk’s move to pull out of his Twitter takeover is a case of market capitulation, or a sign that equity markets are likely to remain depressed.’

Given we are all investors to some degree, whether through superannuation or the highway robbery of price gouging in retail businesses, don’t we deserve to know which investors Maley is talking about?  Who and where are they?  Or should we just accept that she’s dishonestly attributing her own interest to someone else?

What is ‘market capitulation’ and how is it different from depressed ‘equity markets’?  Markets don’t give up.  People do.  And it’s people who control equity trading.  So, is she saying those people are depressed, or just that they are shy about doing deals they would have done weeks or months ago?

This kind of verbiage, steeped in euphemisms and jargon, is quite reminiscent of what Orwell had to say in ‘Politics and the English Language’, about political euphemisms and idiom turning messages into lies, or worse, into entirely meaningless noise.

In the case of Maley’s comment, even if you understand the ‘financial’ jargon, some of the words just make no sense … unless you buy into a pre-existing narrative.  A narrative that proposes forces independent of big-time gamblers and betting odds as exerting mysterious and inexplicable influences on specific bets.  ‘Market forces’, as if these were not just an aggregate of all biggest organized ‘business’ bets, placed by quite identifiable individuals and institutions, and the odds, or factors they count on to win those bets.

Maley devotes 25 paragraphs (of 35) to creating a tenuous relationship between interest rates, share prices, and a bucketful of jargon to offer a potted history of Musk’s takeover offer, with two paragraphs even counting as reporting, if anyone were keeping track of that sort of thing.

Whether she intended it or not, the implication of her exegesis is a causality: Twitter’s share price is lower now than it was when Musk made his initial bid, and that the people who were likely to lend him some of the money for the takeover might have got cold feet, forcing him to pull out of the deal.

It is only if you could stick with the piece for more than 26 pars that you get to details I think should have been the focus of the story: Musk’s excuse for backing out is that Twitter failed to disclose information adequate to determine how many of its user accounts are fake or spam.  A direct contradiction of Maley’s implied causality so far.

Yet Musk’s alibi seems compelling.  Information on the true number of user accounts, and therefore Twitter’s true advertising reach, should absolutely affect its value, and therefore its share price.  If the information is being deliberately withheld, or cannot be produced at all, it would be fair to conclude that Twitter’s value might have been vastly inflated for years, on the back of investor credulity, or even through fraudulently inflated user account figures.

So, isn’t the real story here whether Musk always intended to attack Twitter’s share valuation, either to lower the takeover price, or to make a competitor more valuable?  If so, and if successful, what would be the implications for questioning the practices and share valuations of other social media companies?  Wouldn’t that be a big story?

Could it be argued that this is the most spectacularly brazen market manipulation … this year … so far?  Musk getting all these gamblers to run around in circles to question Twitter’s share price?  A story that would highlight the grotesque corruption of the entire ‘free market’ concept, given such manipulations are rather more normal than not?

Back to the beginning.  Why bury this lead?  And why do it with such a boring alternative?

Orwell’s warning on political language

In case you might think I was being overly dramatic when proposing that Maley, the AFR, and much of Australia’s ‘news’ media are perpetuating a political myth about neoliberalism, consider for a moment what George Orwell had to say about language and politics 76 years ago.

George Orwell, 1947.

In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations. Afterwards one can choose—not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impression one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.

Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

— Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’, in All Art is Propaganda, Mariner Books, 2009.

How does Orwell’s warning apply to Maley’s comment specifically, and Australian journalism more generally?

In plain English, the lead to Maley’s comment is really no more mysterious than: ‘Money-lenders gambling on Musk’s Twitter takeover are having second thoughts.’  All that malarkey about ‘market capitulation’ and depressed ‘equity markets’ is empty verbiage that says nothing.

Shame that Maley didn’t lead with: ‘Was Musk always trying to drive down Twitter’s valuation with questions about genuine user accounts?’  That’s the real story.  The details of how he did it might flow from there, but considerably more work is required to tell that story.  And it would involve pointing to the corruption of an economic system no one has seriously questioned for decades.

Instead it’s me pointing the finger at Maley’s comment.  My motivation is to highlight how Australian ‘journalism’ is largely a sham, these days, and has more in common with disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and ‘content generation’ than any or all Fourth Estate principles (I offer some definitions below).

What we get in Maley’s piece, and most others in the AFR, other newspapers, and television, is propaganda as a starting position: neoliberal economic doctrine is condign, not driven by corruption and theft, and has no credible alternatives.  You can see it even in stories you imagine are far removed from finance, like sport, or celebrity gossip; they all assume the validity of a neoliberal political economy in which inequality is a given, and that the majority of people really don’t need to know the details of how this inequality plays out in everyday life when they could, instead, be distracted by spectacle.

In that vein, why is there no mention in Maley’s piece of how Twitter is valued?  Why not calculate for us the value of each 100,000 user accounts?  And then show us an example of what happens when x per cent of claimed user accounts turns out to be fake or bots?  My answer: it’s both hard work and draws attention to the inherent dishonesty underlying almost all share valuations.  That dishonesty always disappears, along with billions or trillions of dollars, when an inevitable ‘market correction’ (read, a confluence of corruption too big to cover up) comes along.

On top of the foundation of neoliberal propaganda in nominal journalism, we may also encounter disinformation and misinformation.

I’d argue that talking about ‘markets’ rather than naming specific institutions and their decision-making executives, is partly disinformation, by deliberately concealing human agency and accountability.  In Maley’s comment, only Musk is really named as an actor.  Who are the men and women now having second thoughts about backing his takeover bid?

It is also possible (I haven’t checked) that some of the dollar figures Maley cites are just wrong.  If that were the case, it would be misinformation, possibly quite unintentional.

Missing from the piece altogether is any consideration of how the Twitter deal, or its abandonment, would affect ordinary people (through their superannuation shareholdings, or their own Twitter activities, or the potential collapse of a multi-billion dollar business ordinary people rely on in their own business ventures, and so on).  That would be a true Fourth Estate focus.  But, again, it would require a lot of hard, investigative work.

A comment on the capacity for a billionaire to manipulate the price of shares in a multi-billion dollar company, and what that implies about the regulation, or lack thereof, of the ‘market’ would also be a real Forth Estate focus.

A counterargument to my point about jargon could be that readers of the AFR and other ‘financial’ newspapers are expected to know what the words mean.  And It would be impractical to explain these each time in every article.

I would favour that argument if there were more emphasis on tracing the crimes and misdemeanors conducted behind the façade of the jargon.  For example, I have seen no coherent explanation of who drove recent energy spot price increases to allow the Australian oligopoly energy operators to shamelessly price gouge with such impunity.  All I saw were assertions made by those very operators themselves, about the energy ‘market’ somehow driving price increases (no human agency there at all), accepted credulously without independent verification by the content creators who still call themselves journalists.

And here is my final point: journalism is about Fourth Estate principles, not just quoting others without analysis and independent investigation.  So, the people in Australian media who fail to do more than regurgitate what others say are not journalists.  They are just content creators.  Where content is filler material between advertisements, propaganda, disinformation, and methods for harvesting information to on-sell to advertisers and marketers.

There are already advertisements for products that promise to use artificial intelligence to create content for blogs and other sham businesses.  No doubt the algorithms exist to harvest other people’s online prose and to rearrange it into perfectly vacuous tripe, peppered with keywords and phrases designed only to improve search engine optimization.

The people who act like this while working for Australian media companies are almost inevitably working towards their own redundancies, and that of the profession of journalism altogether.

Some definitions

Disinformation is the deliberate dissemination of false and misleading information

Misinformation is deliberate or accidental dissemination of inaccurate information.

Propaganda is presenting any and all information in ways to back a specific cause or viewpoint, and can include disinformation and misinformation.

Fourth Estate principles aren’t a precise prescription and rest on an understanding of historical events that ushered in the Age of Reason in the 18th century.

In the 18th century, the composition of most European states could be considered as comprised of the Church as the first estate, the monarchy as a second estate, and ‘commoners’ as the third estate.

Founder of British conservatism Edmund Burke is credited with mocking the early parliamentary press gallery as being a fourth estate more important than all the others.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to see the fourth estate as the rising middle class, and its zealous pursuit for representing its views.

Those views were invariably about exposing the self-serving abuses of power that would otherwise have remained unremarked or entirely secret.  The kind of abuses that are always paid for by those who don’t have power.  Hence the words ‘telling truth to power’ summarize Forth Estate principles: investigation to uncover facts; analysis to determine the meaning of those facts; and telling the truth about both without fear or favour.

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