How the toxicity of Twitter drove Duncan Garner and Sean Plunket away

by Colin Peacock / 16 October, 2017

AM Show host Duncan Garner addressed the fact he was trending on Twitter. Photo, screenshot / AM Show

Broadcaster Duncan Garner has quit Twitter after a newspaper column on immigration sparked online outrage and abuse. Sean Plunket also stepped away from Twitter and then stepped down from the broadcasting watchdog this week in the wake of his own social media storm. He tells Mediawatch Twitter brings out the worst in people - including himself.

When Statistics New Zealand published new estimates for our future population last week, Mediaworks host Duncan Garner discussed them on his AM show on TV3 with population expert Paul Spoonley. 

Both agreed the figures highlighted an urgent need to address the policy on immigration and their fairly frank discussion about the issue on the show passed off without controversy last week.

But the same can’t be said of his column in the Dominion Post last weekend under the heading: Dear NZ, how do we want to look in 20 years?

He began like this: “I went to Kmart on Wednesday to buy some new underpants and socks. I had held on to the old undies and socks for too long," it began. 

So far - so mundane.

Duncan Garner went on to describe the scene at the overcrowded Kmart checkout as a “nightmarish glimpse of our future if we stuff up immigration".

"I looked around. It could have been anywhere in South East Asia. I wasn't shocked. We have reported this for three years. We have targeted immigrants, opened the gates and let in record numbers. This year's net gain of migrants was 72,000," he wrote.

As in his discussion with Paul Spoonley days earlier on TV3, his point was that NZ population was growing too fast and the powers that be haven’t planned properly for it.

But in the snaking queue of cranky Kmart customers he identified: “Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Syrians, and many others.”

Garner prefaced all of that with this: "None of what I say here in this column is intended to be racist or anti-foreigner" 

 But that's not what many of those who reacted to it thought.

Some pointed out he couldn’t possibly have identified those nationalities he singled out - especially the Syrians who have been big in the news but are a tiny part of the population. And why was he singling out people who just looked foreign?

The column attracted attracted hundreds of online comments on stuff.co.nz, with some congratulations among the condemnations. 

But on his personal Twitter feed the reaction was overwhelmingly negative - some of it from other journalists.

Garner panicked after seeing "Sri Lankans" at Kmart. It must be even scarier to see the son of Sri Lankan migrants working as a TV reporter

Garner took to Facebook to say his column had been misinterpreted.

"It's clear this piece is about population versus infrastructure. Nowhere does it say people who don't look like us are a nightmare," he said. 

On TV3’s AM show last Monday, he announced he had quit Twitter after receiving too much abuse on the platform.

Garner posted examples Facebook of what he called "the putrid vile smell of twitter bile".

"It's an awfully angry, abusive and ultimately sad little hangout from hell. And it's got angrier. And more feral," he wrote.

"I usually genuinely enjoy interaction online and it's good that journos and the public can reach out and talk and get conversations going. That's who I am. I pride myself on accessibility and being approachable and genuine unlike so many who simply couldn't give a toss."

Garner isn't the only media figure making a point about an excess of outrage on Twitter.

After a stint as communications director for the Opportunities Party, which included confrontational exchanges with journalists and commentators, former broadcaster Sean Plunket farewelled followers of his Twitter account shortly after the election. 

But then he started tweeting again, and on Wednesday he put out this tweet about the Hollywood executive under fire for sexual harassment:

"Anyone else feeling for Harvey Weinstein?"

Plenty of people responded in the negative - some extremely abusively.

He replied to say it was just "a social experiment" and Harvey Weinstein deserved “whatever he gets".

Soon after, he posted this tweet about people who took the bait.

"If I was fishing today I would have caught my limit."

Plunket is also being investigated over another much reported comment on Twitter: a potential breach of the law that forbids electioneering on polling day.

Just last month broadcasting minister Maggie Barry appointed Plunket to the board of the Broadcasting Standards Authority, the body charged by the Broadcasting Act of 1989 with upholding standards in broadcasting.

When asked by the NBR if he was suited to sitting on the BSA, he replied: "I don't feel the need to publicly defend my appointment."

This week the BSA met to discuss what it called “issues circulating” and on Friday it issued a statement in which Plunket said he was resigning "in the interests of the smooth running of the Broadcasting Standards Authority".

The BSA told Mediawatch it had nothing to add to the statement and would not comment on the resignation. 

The Broadcasting Standards Authority statement on Sean Plunket's resignation. Photo / screenshot

"It was my resignation and my decision," Plunket told Mediawatch.

Why did he send out a tweet on Harvey Weinstein guaranteed to provoke an angry response?

"I think people suffer this every day, largely in silence. Duncan Garner obviously suffered the same fate of what I would call wilful misinterpretation earlier," he said.

"My object was to raise the issue that our 'social media' was anything but - and is in danger of infecting wider public discourse."

Online abuse is becoming a common reaction and people were too prepared to confirm their own pre-existing biases rather than seek clarification, he said.

"If people behaved in a pub the way they behaved on Twitter, there would be much violence."

Plunket acknowledged he had been part of the problem. 

"I have been as guilty as anyone of immediate reactions and responding in kind to those who use the language of abuse," he said. 

"What should be a 'social' media has been captured by a small number of people who are incredibly active and they have an influence on the whole Twittersphere," he said. 

 

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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