Politicians: try using social media before you start legislating for it


When I was a child, I had a collection of trolls. They were ugly little things with fuzzy tufts of hair, dubious dress sense and faces crafted into an expression of permanent irritation.

That’s how I picture the trolls I encounter in adult life: online, it helps take the harm out of them. If you’re reading, Pat Rabbitte, I’d suggest you do the same.

The Minister for Communications is just one of a number of politicians who has spoken out in recent days about the impact on politics of relentless negative online commentary – a phenomenon the online community calls “trolling”.

He’s not alone: in the past week, TDs Tom Hayes, Jerry Buttimer and Mary Mitchell O’Connor and former minister of state Liz O’Donnell have all expressed concerns about the same thing. Later this month, Hayes will chair a special meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications to look at this issue. “This thing can’t be left to go unchecked, where people can put up vile comments and get away with it,” he said.

Mary Mitchell O’Connor suggested that “it is impossible to quantify how many deaths have been caused or contributed to in the country by the negative elements of social media”.

When politicians from different parties get together to declare a state of moral panic on some issue, wariness is probably a good default position for the rest of us.

I’m not suggesting all online discourse is benign. The vast majority of my interactions are constructive and enjoyable, but in my role as a columnist here, and in my previous job as the editor of an online news site, I have also encountered the little chaps with the fuzzy hair and the wizened faces. I’ve experienced crude and on one occasion, threatening remarks about my looks, my education and even my parenting skills, often in response to innocuous articles.

In response, I have approached the task of acquiring a thick skin with the kind of grim determination you might take with a marathon. Harsh though it may sound, our politicians may have no choice but to do the same. Trying to legislate for online commentary is like trying to juggle sand, and just about as useful.

The sad background to the current debate is the suicides of teenagers Ciara Pugsley and Erin Gallagher last year, and, in December, the death of minister of state Shane McEntee. Each of the three had reportedly been subject to nasty online comments in the weeks before their deaths.

Suicide is a hugely complex issue: I don’t think we should ever presume to identify a single cause, much less to invoke someone’s tragic death as an opportunity to legislate on something about which most politicians appear to have only a fleeting grasp.

Jerry Buttimer is one of the exceptions among those who have spoken out about this issue: he is active on both Twitter and Facebook. Mary Mitchell O’Connor also maintains a regular presence on Facebook. But many of the rest of the Fine Gael party follow the tone set by leader Enda Kenny, who hasn’t updated his Twitter account in 18 months.

Likewise, there are a handful of Labour politicians active on social media; Pat Rabbitte is not among them.

As a result, many politicians appear to have a poor understanding of the internet, referring to “online commentary” as though it were a coherent and deeply suspicious entity – an approach that makes as much sense as lumping all tabloid newspapers, Morning Ireland, The Irish Times and, say,TV3’s Tallafornia together as some kind of single, malicious mouthpiece.

This air of suspicion reached fever pitch at the weekend, when Rabbitte, along with Tom Hayes, took to the media to complain about “deplorable” and “offensive” images featuring Senator Ronan Mullen, which had been posted to Twitter. One of the images featured the senator’s head on the body of a man wearing nothing but a swimsuit and a large crucifix; the other showed his head superimposed on the body of a baby Jesus.

Silly? Yes. Funny? That’s debatable. Deplorable? Probably no more so than much mainstream radio or TV satire.

People should not be free to incite hatred or to libel others at will online – but there are already laws governing that. Earlier this week, a blogger apologised on Twitter to Libertas’s Declan Ganley over tweets he had made, and made a donation to charity in what was believed to be the first legal settlement in the state involved Twitter content.

So unless our politicians are intent on outlawing satire, it’s hard to see why they think we need tighter regulation. Malicious commentary makes the internet a less pleasant place for everyone, but I don’t believe we need legislation to deal with it.

In her calls for action “to tackle the destructive power of social media”, Mary Mitchell O’Connor cited a YouTube video that went viral last weekend, showing an Irish schoolgirl in an angry and excitable state having a late-night argument with a guy in a pizza joint. Frankly, I thought it made a better argument for why we don’t need legislation.

Yes, the video, and some of the commentary to which the girl was subjected, were cruel, exploitative and, I’m sure, deeply distressing for her and her family. But by the time I came across the story later that day, the YouTube video had been taken down, and most of the tweets and Facebook posts linking to it had been deleted by people who said they had no idea how young the girl was when they first posted it.

The incident showed how the online community can moderate itself. Wikipedia is a prime example of how self-moderation works – it’s not a perfect system, but it’s a pretty good one.

Sites such as Twitter, Facebook and even YouTube are not inherently benign, but they’re not inherently evil either. It’s how you use them that determines their impact.

Dumb system hobbles the 'smart economy'

In the run up to the last election, an awful lot of hot air was spouted about developing a “smart economy”. Barely two years on, students are availing of food vouchers while they wait for their grants to come through, due to problems with the Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi), the centralised grants system.

Of the students whose applications have been approved, 28 per cent (about 5,500) have yet to receive payment, according to the USI president John Logue. Many of them are going hungry. As a result, significant numbers will never go on to be part of the much-vaunted smart economy: they have been forced to drop out of college and return home.

We claim to be surprised when the students who make it through the system then suddenly hop on a plane to London, Sydney or Toronto.

What hope have we of ever delivering on the so-called smart economy if we can’t even build a working student grant-payment system?

Coke please, but hold the burger

Two health studies published this week are likely to provide post-festive cheer to those who have no desire to go on a January diet.

The first found that the old chestnut about using Coca-Cola to treat stomach problems might have some truth to it. A study carried out by researchers at Athens University found that the soft drink is 90 per cent effective in treating a condition called gastric phytobezoar, a stomach blockage that can lead to bowel obstruction. The researchers conclude that “Coca-Cola administration is a cheap, easy-to-perform and safe procedure”.

The second, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, offered even better news: it claimed that being overweight can lead to a longer life.

The researchers at the US National Centre for Health Statistics examined 97 studies involving nearly 2.9 million people to compare death rates with Body Mass Index (BMI). They found that overweight people (with a BMI of between 25 and 30) were 6 per cent less likely to die early than those considered to have a healthy weight.

But don’t get too excited – the study was barely off the presses when health experts labelled it nonsense. Prof John Wass, vice president of the UK Royal College of Physicians asked the BBC: “Have you ever seen a 100-year-old human being who is overweight?” Fair point.

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