Friday, January 27, 2017

Hobart Council's Leaders Have A Batman Problem

Not quite your average fetish-goth website
If you look for Hobart City Council on Facebook, and you haven't done so before, you're in for a big surprise.

The page you might expect to be the council's Facebook page (linked for information only, not as an endorsement) is in fact a derogatory spoof page full of fictitious material and political attacks on aldermen and run by an anonymous person who often uses the alias "Batman".  Reactions to this site from its primary targets have been front page news in Hobart in the last few days.  The site has become not just a commentary on Council political issues but a Council political issue in itself, one that is becoming a serious distraction.

I normally only cover council politics in the leadup to an election, but I've decided to make an exception for this one, which may be of interest to audiences of council politics nationwide as a study in social-media (mis)management.  At the last election, Alderman Sue Hickey, a well-known business figure and former Liberal preselection aspirant, ran for the mayoralty against the then Lord Mayor Damon Thomas.  Hickey beat Thomas, and seemed set to follow the pattern of previous long-term mayors Doone Kennedy and Rob Valentine in that if you are popular enough to wrest the office from an incumbent mayor who rubbed people up the wrong way, the job is basically yours for life.



At first things went swimmingly for the new Mayor, whose leadership was seen as a big freshen-up (especially of the city's public toilets) after the erratic single term under Thomas, and with the city in the grip of a major construction boom as a very welcome contrast to a perception of a "Myer hole" inner-city rustbucket in previous years.  (The city's Myer store had burned down and took a very long time to be replaced.)

When the new approach did come in for criticism, it seemed to initially focus on image issues of minor consequence.  A new Hobart City logo, for instance, copped flak on account of its bandaid-like image, lack of Hobart's distinctive landmarks, and similarity to other logos.  Then, between that and the arrival of a  much-ridiculed Christmas tree sculpture in Salamanca Square, the Batman site arrived.  The site appeared in August 2015, which I am struggling to reconcile with Deputy Mayor Christie's claim that its tone changed following the last election (which was actually held the year earlier).

The Batman site appears to be mainly the work of a single author who is a dab hand with Photoshop and writes scathing satirical pieces about the Council.  Most of the articles are, as Batman asserts, similar in style to the kind of material published in The Shovel, The Betoota Advocate or The Onion - mock news articles written in a humorous fashion.  This kind of satirical mock news was called "fake news" in the Mercury headline, but it is not the same thing.  "Fake news" (in the recent US campaign sense) is false news written and publicised to try to make people believe it is true.  Satirical mock news stories are sometimes mistaken for true, but that's not their major intention.

The site doesn't only post mock news and similarly mock "events" (or perhaps "The Downing Of The Empire" is an election prediction) but now and then it publishes anonymous letters by other people, shares media or cartoons critical of the Council - especially those that read like they could be satire - or includes opinion pieces by its author.

Batman's defence of their anonymity is that legal threats have been made against them.  Whether the anonymity came before the legal threats is unclear because we don't know Batman's history.  I suspect a major reason is that knowing Batman's history would make the agenda behind the site all too obvious and spoil the fun.

The site maintains that Hobart has "arguably one of the world's most dysfunctional councils".  As comical as some personalities and battles on the Hobart Council are, this would be news to the residents of Huon Valley, whose Council has been sacked following infighting between the mayor and the council and General Manager, or Glenorchy City, whose Council has similar issues and is headed for a possible six-month suspension.

Where the Batman site departs from satirical mock-news sites is that it is blatantly biased and frequently smuggles actual claims of wrongdoing into its "satire", often without feeling any compulsion to provide any evidence for it.  After reviewing all the articles currently displayed on it (but not all the comments) I find that its most frequent target by far is Sue Hickey, and its main targets apart from her are Deputy Lord Mayor Ron Christie and General Manager Nick Heath.  (The reason for targeting Heath is none too obvious, so this is more evidence that we probably have someone who has had official dealings with the Council.) Other aldermen or officials are from time to time lampooned, used as characters in stories or passingly attacked or defended, but these three stand out by a very large margin indeed.

Also while the page canvasses a range of Council issues (the logo, Hickey's controversial comments on Macquarie Point, the Christmas tree, toilets, aldermanic trips and expenses etc) by far its biggest focus is the Taste of Tasmania, a long-running annual summer food and wine festival.  Batman repeatedly alleges that the Taste has been mismanaged by the Council, especially concerning attempts to introduce a cashless card system for all payments.

So there is a view that the leathery pest is someone who has been burned off personally by the Council's approach to the Taste, but another (not exclusive) option is that Batman is closely allied to someone, or is someone, who wants to beat Hickey and Christie at the 2018 election.   In its early days there was a perception that the Batman site was a front for Damon Thomas and his ally, Hobart's human headline Marti Zucco.  It is frequently claimed Batman is Zucco, but I know Zucco's style pretty well, and I don't believe it for a moment.

The fairly frequent references to Zucco on the site are sometimes of a stirring nature but also often positive, while Thomas is rarely mentioned and usually but not always portrayed with sympathy, eg as a "Fall Guy" for the Taste.  Direct references to the four Green aldermen on Council in articles are rare, though Batman spars a lot with Philip Cocker (who often defends Hickey) in comments.

The caped one doesn't seem to like the Liberal Party very much, with the site at various points attacking John Howard, Eric Abetz and Will Hodgman.  That doesn't really narrow the field much and at this stage I have not really tried to work out who Batman is.

The Council does have a Facebook page of its own.  But finding it may not be easy.  While researching this article I was unable to find it by searching Facebook or Google, and only found it eventually because it was linked off a Mercury piece about the imposter site.

The Reaction

(Note: Some links in this section may be paywalled.  For those who prefer not to pay, copying and pasting the article's title into Google may bring up a non-paywalled link.  Opening links in an incognito window, or some combination of these methods, may also work.)

When the site first appeared and became a news story, Hickey attempted to brush it off.  Within a few months Hickey penned a serious op ed questioning how an anonymously run site was able to act as a lightning rod for vitriol against the Council over the Taste.  The council succeeded in having its logo removed from the site but has been unable to convince Facebook to stop allowing a parody account to use its name as a page name.

Things were relatively quiet on the media front until exploding in the last week following a call for Batman to unmask themselves.  This call, which also claimed that pro-Council comments on the site were being deleted (though there are certainly some there), followed a few days after the site had published a mock article claiming that Hickey had resigned.  Batman next responded with a modified Seinfeld meme and a lewd and at least arguably sexist suggestion that Hickey pose for a similar portrait.

Deftly escalated, caped crusader.  Within days the issue went front page with Hickey going to the police with concerns for her safety ("I don't want to be a dead Lord Mayor", shades of Pauline Hanson's "If you are seeing me now I have been murdered" video).  Hickey reported an increase in theft and trespassing around her house and events like people ringing the doorbell and running away in the middle of the night.

Whether these events are really the behaviour of stalkers inspired by the scathing atmosphere surrounding the Batman page or pure coincidence is impossible to judge from afar.   But you'd want to eliminate more mundane explanations first.  I've had people knocking on my door and running away lately too, but I don't attribute that to any of my many political enemies.  I attribute it to children or drunk people being silly. There are some very politically strange people out there sometimes though, and it takes a lot less than the Batman page to set some of them off.

Even without considering political matters, Hickey has had a terribly stressful year (her partner was hospitalised with Guillain-Barre syndrome in highly alarming and sudden circumstances.  Thankfully he survived and is recovering). There is nothing threatening as such about the Batman posts and nothing to suggest the author themselves is dangerously disturbed (vindictive, maybe).  Still a lot of them have been quite personally merciless and nasty, including one mock piece where the Lord Mayor drowns under the weight of the chains of office, and comments comparing her to Mussolini and, worse still,  Bronwyn Bishop.

The Mayor presents a rose-coloured glasses view of a world where this kind of anonymous criticism did not exist.  It always did. In the old days, anonymous critics resorted instead to graffiti ("Hobart Is Dooned!"), notices plastered on walls, leaflets and other such methods to get their points across without being accountable for them.  Doone Kennedy and her deputy John Freeman were the subject of a derogatory birthday poem published in the classifieds and ghost-written by a fellow alderman ("Our Goulburn girl will be Queen of the May" etc).  Tasmanian Times used to prominently highlight an 1852 John West quote about the circulation of "Pipes" by rhyme or on scraps of paper against 19th century official figures.

But it is obvious that these days this sort of thing is so much easier.  I suspect that the Batman posts don't really rally a chorus of many thousand followers, since on social media a lot of people follow so much junk that they are not even paying attention to most of the stuff in their feed most of the time.  All the same, interest in the site is quite significant, with the Seinfeld fake-reveal attracting 573 likes, 37 shares and 81 comments.  If it is still around at the next election the site could well be an election issue.  This will then raise the question of how anonymous electoral comment on Facebook can be policed, and if it can be then what the site will do about authorisation during the election period.

The problems

Facebook just should not be allowing this sort of site to use an organisation's title to attack an organisation.  There is no valid free speech defence for allowing this sort of imposture when the author could just as easily say the same things on a page that was not so labelled.  It should be trivially easy for an organisation to submit a successful claim against an imposter page that has squatted on an account name matching its own.  Unfortunately global social media companies are especially good at washing their hands of such problems unless they can be forced by law to fix them.

However if the account name was really not taken until the Batman site started in 2015, this also suggests a lack of council social media risk-management going back several years. There are also, at a quick check, at least some other Tasmanian councils that would be prone to similar attacks that have not yet grabbed the page name associated with their council, and some that have only very recently done so.  Councils need to learn from Hobart's experience that this sort of thing can be damaging, and can be stopped in minutes in advance but is very much harder to deal with once the horse has bolted.

The Batman site attracts some nasty comments from obvious trolls, but when I see the site used as a pretext for a general campaign for new laws against "cyber-bullying" I feel we need to be quite wary. The great majority of comments posted on the site are clearly nothing of the sort. A few years back the previous state government - with a free pass from the idle Tasmanian left - tried to extend anti-discrimination laws in a way that would have seriously trashed free speech in Tasmania and in fact been a boon to trolls, in the guise of tackling "bullying".  It's easy to say cyber-bullying is a bad thing, but defining it broadly is much more difficult.

The smarter trolls would just love new rules about cyber-bullying because it would give them more room to play games and toy with their victims.   Troll X knowingly and dishonestly says something manifestly clueless in a mild tone but with intent to provoke, poster Y flames X for expressing such a ridiculous view, and suddenly Y is the "bully" and the troll plays the victim.  Another issue is free political discourse.  One may or may not like things that are said in comments on the Batman page, but a lot of them are honest expressions of political opinion, however coarse, unfounded or even factually wrong.  When we try allowing some such things and banning others, in any but the most extreme cases, we run into a lot of trouble.

As for Hickey, there's a bit of a double standard here.  Hickey follows after her mentor Doone Kennedy in priding herself on speaking her mind even at the cost of being politically incorrect.  But Kennedy (mayor 1986-1996) - whose country-larrikin style owed a bit to the Sir Joh and Thatcher playbooks - would say incredibly off-colour things and get away with it because she generally ignored it, laughed or doubled down if anyone reacted.  It was so much easier to get away with back then too.  You can't both use being "politically incorrect" as a free pass for saying you didn't "kill the Aborigines" so why the "guilt", and at the same time mount a PC-style critique of internet abuse as being incitement of hatred, cyber-bullying, and underlying social sexism against female politicians.  (The latter part of which might well be true, but the point here is consistency.)  Much of the site may be motivated by a grudge against the council on particular issues, but the Lord Mayor is in my view causing some of the problems she is getting on social media by trying to be something she's not, another Doone.

While the Council leaders work their way through the issues of whether there is anything they can do about the site and what they should say about it otherwise, the page is quite a problem for the Council's marketing and getting out the message about what the Council does.    Many voters will be getting their opinions about the Council mainly from a negative site that has become a significant forum for online debate about the Council.  If the page cannot be made to disappear (or Batman doesn't just get bored and flap away) then it's not clear what solution exists, other than to drown out the site's complaints with the roar of outstanding performance.

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Disclaimers: 

1. No Council figures past or present were consulted in the writing of this post and nor was Batman.  I wanted to give an initial personal view that no-one else had had a chance to influence.  

2. All offline contact about this page from Councillors, Batman or obvious allies of either will be treated as on the public record whatever its form, especially if stated otherwise.

3. No guesses about the identity of Batman will be published here.  Claims backed by solid proof will be of interest.

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