Of all that Mike Baird did over the course of his three years as Premier of New South Wales, nothing defined him as much as his approach to social media.
He was a politician who lived through Twitter and Facebook, and his extended, bitter falling out with the internet proved symbolic of his entire approach to running Sydney. He was a man unwilling to back down, but more than that, he was a man unwilling to either forgive or forget: a politician locked into a brutal, messy battle with his own constituency.
And though it’s certainly true that most politicians have a confused, less-than positive attitude towards the world wide web – after all, it was Baird’s friend Tony Abbott who referred to social media as “electronic graffiti” – NSW’s now retired Premier had a relationship with the net that could only be described as toxic.
Baird has been called arrogant, and he was that. He has been called stubborn and out of touch, and he was that too. But above all else, he was a glorified internet troll: a politician ever-desperate for attention, willing even to piss off those he was meant to represent in order to get it.
It was not always the case that Baird treated the internet with disdain, of course. Though the memory of his popularity has faded rapidly, undone by a full year of priggish, smirking pseudo-fascism, it wasn’t that long ago that his ‘internet dad’ persona was his defining characteristic. He tweeted recaps of The Bachelor, penned viral posts about the invisibility cloak of Big Issue sellers, and rocked up to public events in a DeLorean.
Sure, such a love affair was daggy, and it didn’t always carry, but it was a potent enough distraction for many: a spoonful of sugar to sweeten the taste of his evangelical Christianity and big business ties. He might have gotten into copyright trouble for ripping off Jimmy Kimmel’s ‘Mean Tweets’ skit, but even that stunt didn’t cost him much in the way of face – he still seemed more savvy than most, a handsome, teeth-flashin’ father figure with a finger most firmly on the pulse.
But hubris, the enemy of all who wrestle with things they don’t truly understand, was waiting for Baird. The fall was inevitable. After all, it always is when conservative politicians flirt with the language of the young: when the gap between what public figures do and what they say online begins to widen.
That, indeed, was part of Baird’s mistake. He co-opted the language of populists like Justin Trudeau and even Obama, the President who led an America being shaped by the internet, but he did so in order to slap paint on a ruined building. He did so because he thought that would be enough; that words and recaps and publicity events would not only distract the public from claims of his corruption and political narcissism, but that they could somehow undo such claims. He wasn’t looking for a way of fighting the way people thought about him: he was looking to transform himself before their very eyes.
He was overconfident, of course. Overconfident enough that it wasn’t so much a case of whether he was going to get too big for his internet boots – it was when.
It was Baird’s self-congratulatory, snotty Facebook post about the “hysteria” surrounding the lockout laws that proved to be the turning point in the discourse surrounding his public persona. And for good reason: it was the post that most clearly crystallised his damaged views; made it most obvious that he had no interest in listening and a lot in speaking.
Indeed, for Mike Baird, social media was never a way of interacting with his constituency: it was merely a way of lecturing at them. He never understood the communicative properties of social media; could never reckon with the ideal that online discourse went both ways.
That, and he never quite contended with social media’s power to magnify. A Facebook post isn’t a speech, or a poster: it’s something more immediate, something that truly hits people where they live, and as a result it invariably seems more like a shout than a whisper. If Baird had taken out a TV add to decry the opposition to the lockout laws, he might have gotten away from it. After all, free-to-air television these days is the Wild West, and viewers flock to it aware that they’re going to get proselytized to.
But by taking to his socials, his previously upheld tone of ‘We’re doing what we think is best for you’ authoritarianism bubbled over into all-out arrogance. “We know what we think is best for you,” said that post, rubbing out his own social media app-curated aura of ‘uncool cool’ in one fell swoop, invading the safe space of the timeline in the process.
And yet he learnt nothing from the exchange. If anything, it galvanised him. That is what made him such a dangerous politician; that is how his posting reveals his thought processes and the attitudes embedded in him like glass. For Baird, no criticism was constructive and all opposition was a sign he should dig deeper. He was a political tick buried deep into Sydney’s side. The more protesters called his name, the more he sunk in.
That defensive attitude dominated the last stretch of his premiership. His social channels were daubed in self-pity, depreciation and smug sneering. Rather than taking social media stings as indications he should avoid interaction with certain areas of the internet altogether, Baird instead adopted a tone of stubborn ‘beat ‘em to the punch’ self-jibing, barely able to cover his rage and resentment with a poorly applied layer of humour.
He walled himself off, further and further from those he was required to defend and support, and he repaid criticism with resentment. Perhaps he thought he was making commenters look foolish, riling them up to a state of petty rage. Or maybe he believed that excessive levels of snark were admirable, the ‘humble’ way to tolerate outrage.
Nonetheless, however he justified the approach, he claimed no respect with his antics. He was a naked Premier, one unlike any other: an elected official who treated the social media feed like a battle line, with him on one side and his snarling, hateful electorate on the other.
It was pathetic. Despite Mike Baird’s high estimation of himself, he didn’t even have the moxie or the knowhow to be an internet bad guy, and he always lacked the self-awareness of your Martin Shkreli types. He was neither saint nor sinner. He was simply that most run-of-the-mill version of the internet nuisance: no more statesman than petulant troll, a Twitter egg holding office.