On Politicians and Abuse
This is a piece I wrote for the Connacht Tribune just before Christmas about the extent to which politicians should be fair game for criticism – and when crticism ends and abuse begins. I’ve added it here in the context of a twitter exchange earlier on social media. I think it gives a fuller picture of my views on the issue. In the meantime, I spoke to Paschal Donohoe, the Fine Gael TD, who was a former and avid user of twitter and facebook. He closed both accounts down in the autum because of the volume of abuse he was receiving.
The tragic death of Shane McEntee has cast a shadow over the entire political system. When news filtered through to Leinster House of his sudden death, it was shocking. And then when details emerged that he had taken his own life, it was awful beyond words.
There is no set profile of people who commit suicide and the reasons are often very complicated, impossible to discern. On the face of it, Shane McEntee seemed so unlikely. He was an innately decent man who wore his emotions on his sleeve. Generally, he was seen as very solid although prone to sometimes saying things without first thinking them through.
It is known that he was very upset about the reaction to comments he made after the Budget. In an intervew with The Sunday Times, he excused the cut of €400 respite care grant on the basis that you could get a room for a week in a top hotel for €700. What he was trying to say that with prices falling in society as a result of the recession, the fall was relative as people could get more bang for their buck these days. But it sounded bad and he received a barrage of criticism for it on the radio, on the phone and through social media.
There has been a lot of commentary since the weekend that all of this was a factor in his decision to end his life. To be quite honest, it’s not possible to tell or reach any kind of conclusion on this, as we just don’t know the full facts or circumstances surrounding the tragedy. But one of the repercussions has been a renewed scrutiny of the role that social media and more traditional forms (radio shows and even the humble telephone) have played in recent political discourse.
I spoke to quite a number of politicians from all hues over the weekend and they were all at one on a number of points. The first was that the volume has been pumped up when it came to vitriol and vile comments since the recessions has started.
It’s not hard to see why. People have lost jobs and are struggling with debt and are worried about making ends meet and are angry. But the anger becomes personalised and sometimes manifests itself in nasty abuse of the politician involved.
Liam Twomey, a Fine Gael TD from Wexford, is also a family doctor. He made the observation at the weekend that the anger has almost become self-perpetuating. Among the angry people, he said, you sometimes find people who have very well paid public jobs and whose mortgages have been full paid. He said it they really looked at their own situation compared to others they would find that the anger is misplaced and that they have assumed a common position (anger) without examining why it should be.
The second has been the growth of social media and the huge popularity of facebook and twitter. Many politicians (most younger) have gone onto the platform. But every time they or their party have been invovled in a controversy, they have encountered a blizzard of abuse. That in itself is a problem but the worst part of it is that some of is comes from those who use a pseudonym, which allows them hurl abuse under the cloak of anonymity. This has become a real problem on twitter and facebook. The Cork South Central TD Jerry Buttimer was subjected to horrible abuse on facebook after the Budget, some of it bordering closely on incitement to hatred. The Roscommon TD Frankie Feighan got similar treatment over Roscommon hospital. When the Minister of State at the Department of Communications Sean Sherlock introduced regulations that would have implications for online copywright, he encountered a huge campaign opposing it from the the tecchie and web community. Which was fair enough, except that a small proportion started personalising the abuse in a horrible way.
Politicians are sentient – and sometimes sensitive – human beings and are prone to the same fears, anxieties and shock as anybody else is. And there are idiots out there who hide behind the cloak of anonymity and think that politicians are fair game for all kinds of abuse and lies and insults and hate they can conjure up. Obviously they aren’t innured. I spoke to half a dozen TDs over the past few days who were deeply hurt and upset by the stuff they had to deal with. The Minister of State who has responsibility for mental health Kathleen Lynch pointed out to me over the weekend that you should never assume that politicians, because they are public figures and more used to being at the eye of the storm, are resilient to the kind of personal abuse that has become common since the recession and the advent of social media.
It must also be added that it’s just not an online phenomenon. Anger and venom has become the currency of some radio talk shows. And there are also anonymous telephone calls. It’s just a sad fact that modern society provides far more opportunities for those who want to use the poison pen. There is a small unrepresenative section, and I’d say some are frothing angry teenagers, who think that all politicians are fair game. Lynch told me that she never looks at facebook or Twitter because of that kind of carry-on. She also said that she is seriousnly considering bringing in people with expertise who can advise and counsel politicians on how to deal, both practically and psychologically, with such hate campaigns when they arise. Her point is also directed against those who sent such bile. She said they sometimes don’t realise that the message they have fired off in anger or in fury has consequences, that it can incite other anonymous ‘trolls’ to add their tuppence worth, that it can be very upsetting to those who receive it… forcing them to the point of despair. Of course, the vast majority of those who use Twitter, facebook and online fora are responsbile in their online behaviour, but a small group of anonymous nasties can infect the whole site. I was involved in a very interesting conversation on Twitter on Sunday night on anonymity. As journalists, we rely on anonymous sources and some of the most important whistleblowers in Ireland and abroad have retained their anonymity. One of the best sites on Irish current affairs, namawinelake, is written by an anonymous pen. So for me, allowing people to retain their anonymity when talking on matters of public interest is important. It’s when it gets nasty that it creates problems. Telling a politician you hope he dies slowly from cancer is unspeakable and cowardly. And there have been a few instances of anonymous nastiness that has been uncovered recently. The former Fianna Fáil TD Chris Andrews was exposed as having set up a false Twitter identity to allow him criticise rivals within the party with (seeming) impunity. Another Irish blogger revealed how he had been subjected to anti-semitic abuse for over a year. When he investigated the source, he found out it was the teenage son of a good friend of his. One of the lazy responses from people is that, well, the internet is so big and extensive that it can’t be policed. Well yes it can. You can’t stop it all but when you are talking about Irish politics and current affairs, some sites are more popular than others. Stronger moderation and enforcement of the basic ground rules, for one, would help. And if somebody is useing a facebook or a Twitter account to hurl horrible anonymous abuse, that involves racism or sexism or incitement to hatred, both companises should be pressurised to make sure that that account is closed down. If there was a newspaper doing the same, it would be shut down within a week. Shane McEntee bocht. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.