FORMER National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) president Jock Laurie once shared a wise observation with me: “Social media can be a tremendous voice or a dangerous weapon for agriculture, it must be managed to ensure the message is one we want people to see”.
Unfortunately, last Tuesday night’s AgChatOz was more of the “dangerous weapon” than “tremendous voice”.
AgChatOz, the weekly, national Twitter discussion on agriculture has lost momentum of late, but it came to a halt following last week’s discussion on “agricultural representation”.
NFF and a few of the State Farming Organisations were well represented along with more than 120 other contributors during the discussion, but it was a small, ragtag group of individuals that drowned out the chat with their disrespectful and naive tone. Like an angry drunk in a bar, they stumbled around with fists clenched just waiting for someone to make eye contact. They also ignored constant requests by AgChatOz to “please stay on topic tonight, and remain respectful of others”.
The day after, I spoke with a few people that were in on the chat.
NFF stated: “We are always willing to have an open discussion about agricultural representation, and recognise there are many viewpoints. But it was extremely disappointing to see a few negative, and at times aggressive, voices drowning out what could have been a constructive, and important, debate.”
NFF chief executive Matt Linnegar’s personal thoughts on the chat were that it was “somewhere between insightful and unhelpful!”. And Tammi Jonas, a regular Tweeter, farmer and presenter on sustainable farming said “a foot needs to be put down. This small, loud and abusive group offer absolutely nothing to our community.”
Now I have much experience in heated debate, often sparking it through these blogs. I enjoy a spirited discussion, however I promptly walk away when respect is lost, arguments are shot down because they “don’t comply” or attacks are made on a person. It was this type of foot-stamping behaviour we saw last Tuesday night.
Tom Whitty, a co-founder of AgChatOz said: “The forum has always been an open platform and everyone can participate. Recently however, we’ve seen basic courtesies forgotten and constructive debate degenerate into personal attacks and pigeonholing of individuals who hold different views, both on and off the chat, in the ag community. Our passion for the industry often leads to a good strong discussion. However, a few have gone too far.”
Alison Penfold, chief executive of the Australian Live Exporters’ Council (ALEC) was on the chat and said: “AgChatOz is a breath of fresh air and it was sad to see the vacuous comments on Tuesday night. It can be seen straight through.”
All of these reactions bring us to the why. Why would a small group of people, who apparently support agriculture, white ant the AgChatOz forum, a national conversation in our industry? Why would they sabotage the agricultural community and its image on the second biggest social media platform?
I turned to the Australian Psychology Service for an answer and was put in contact with Leslie Posen. Leslie, a clinical psychologist who has much experience with online behaviour, looked over the transcript and shared this observation.
“My perception, in this example is that the main offenders are showing troll-like behaviour but seem to suffer more from frustration. They feel they’re an authority, know the problem and have the answer to fractures within the industry with polarising answers. The generalisations, exaggerations and ad hominem tone are testament to their irritation,” he said.
He also added that the medium of Twitter may not help, in that trying to conduct such an important and complex discussion, 140 characters at a time, could add to the issue.
One thing is certain, we’re yet to witness the owners of these Twitter accounts do anything about it. They’re always there to critique 24/7 but never show proof of innovative behaviour such as transactional examples of contribution, business cases or plans, white papers, article writing, lobbying or other change-inducing endeavours. All bark and no bite, in other words.
The unfortunate result of their behaviour is that many involved in agriculture who would like to participate in constructive discussions get turned-off and decide not to involve themselves in forums like AgChatOz, and inevitably walk away.
One characteristic of a troll is to create an alias account. And I have no reason to believe that a few of the offenders we see attacking others on AgChatOz actually exist. Leslie Posen said these people get “delicious joy from maliciousness” and what better way to do that by creating an alter ego that is devoid of responsibility through anonymity, provides an outlet and “adds to their cause”.
Tonight, AgChatOz will discuss “the future of AgChatOz”. I ask you to log on and give this community your thoughts and support to carry on in the best direction possible. And if the lunatic fringe rock up with their hidden agendas and cancerous tones, treat them like that drunk in the bar and just turn your back. Don’t even respond, don’t encourage them and their attacks will be met with silence.
You can read a transcript of last week’s AgChatOz discussion by clicking here. A link to the Australian Psychological Society’s Find a Psychologist Service is available by clicking here.