Artillery Row

Good news clickbait

Cleo Smith has been found, just rejoice at that news

Oh for more days like this. For the past two and a half weeks, there has only been one story in Australia. Apart from the one about our Prime Minister getting dragged by the French. And forgetting the one about our international borders finally reopening. The focus of the nation’s attention has been four-year-old Cleo Smith, who disappeared from her parents’ tent in the early hours of 16 October. Today, against all probability, that story had a happy ending. Cleo was found alive and well in a locked Carnarvon house.

It’s hard to explain how important that good news story is to the national psyche. Above all, the rescue of Cleo Smith is a triumph of hope. I think most Australians had forgotten what that felt like. Many of us are still struggling to process it. At the start of last year, our country was battered by devastating bushfires. Before that had sunk in, the pandemic hit. While we escaped the death tolls seen in other parts of the world, that relative safely came at a cost. Large chunks of the populace endured strict lockdowns unmatched elsewhere in the world. Tens of thousands of Australians found themselves unable to come home, twenty million others found themselves unable to leave.

The abduction of Cleo Smith seemed like a final, unnecessarily cruel blow

The abduction of Cleo Smith seemed like a final, unnecessarily cruel blow. It struck at some core Australian notions of safety and freedom, the family camping trip being something of a sacrosanct ritual here. For some it triggered folk memories of nine-week-old Azaria Chamberlain, believed stolen from her tent by dingoes some decades ago. For those in Western Australia, Cleo’s disappearance came hard on the tail of another camping tragedy earlier in the month. Towards the south of the state, an eight-year-old boy was found drowned near his family cabin, after a week of desperate searching through rain-soaked wilderness.

The international picture isn’t much brighter. Last week, ahead of the COP26 summit, our government announced its plan to get Australia to net zero emissions by 2050. Except it wasn’t a plan at all, but rather a desperate gamble on technology that doesn’t yet exist. The modelling wasn’t made public, but the numbers it relied on bent reality in a fashion unseen this side of an event horizon. Little wonder our stall at a climate change summit was dominated by a pitch from a fossil fuel company.

By virtue of our time zones, Australians are accustomed to waking up to stories of horror, the world having turned — or spiralled — while we slept. But today most of us awoke a disorienting and unprecedented blast of good news. How were we supposed to react? In our household (where our children are barely older than Cleo), we wept. 

The common narrative in our digital age, where outrage fuels every interaction, is that our societies have never been more divided. In Australia, that has felt quite literally true. In the absence of a convincing federal response to the pandemic, Australia has been parcelled up into states and districts, each competing to do better than the other. Melbourne spent most of 2020 as a pariah city and Sydney spent this year boasting about how much better it was doing, even while it seeded an outbreak that has engulfed the east coast. Not for the first time, Western Australia detached itself from the rest of the continent and attempted to drift off into the Indian Ocean in blissful isolation.

No doubt there will be further debate around race should the perpetrator prove not to be a white man

Today, the war was over, if you wanted it. Yes, there was the predictable bickering and policing of responses. Some unfavourably compared the blanket coverage Cleo’s abduction received with the silence surrounding the disappearance of first nations youths or other people of colour, as if it were simply Cleo’s skin colour, rather than her age, that drove the interest in the story. (One only need look at the broad coverage surrounding the tragic death of Aishwarya Aswath, a young girl of colour, in a Perth hospital waiting room to put such bickering aside.) 

No doubt there will be further debate around race should the perpetrator prove not to be a white man. The gratitude from those who recently rallied to Defund The Police might prove short-lived. But today, there was a rare consensus. Here was something that was undeniably good news, whatever your politics. For twenty-four hours, Twitter became more watering hole than hell hole. 

Earlier this week, Michelle Goldberg wrote in the New York Times that it was baked into our online modes of communication that, by getting to know each other, we will chiefly realise how much we hate each other. But here was a rare glimpse of a genuinely social media, where a society shares rather than divides itself.

There’s little doubt that the coverage of Cleo’s disappearance has seen the worst tendencies of the internet news cycle, as mastheads stirred up the sort of speculation that keeps readers not just engaged but invested. We live in an age of armchair detectives — true crime buffs who once listened to Serial and are now convinced they’re Poirot — and each was invited to take a gamble on the denouement. Everyone was wrong. The million dollar reward will go unclaimed.

Maybe this happy ending is an invitation to consider what else we’re wrong about. Maybe, against all odds, we are as easily united as we are divided. The smart thinking online is that stoking division gets the clicks. The operations of Facebook and Twitter are predicated on the belief that we share — and receive — outrage and hatred more freely and easily than we communicate happiness and love. Activists holler in the most hyperbolic terms, evoking an endless war in which the usual rules of engagement are not only off, but actively problematic. Today, Australians — and the watching world — discovered an alternative to the infinite gloom. Forget doomscrolling, we’re all about the joyscrolling now.

I’m not used to this much joy. But I’m willing to give it a try.

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