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.