‘Anti-establishment’ tone on social media is influencing attitudes to politicians, ombudsman says

Peter Feeney says aggressive, misogynistic comments online are affecting public responses

An "anti-establishment" tone that exists on social media is influencing people's attitudes towards politicians, an Oireachtas committee has been told.

Addressing the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Petitions on Thursday, Press Ombudsman Peter Feeney said aggressive and misogynistic comments that are being posted online are affecting how the public responds when meeting politicians.

“I don’t know a TD or Senator who hasn’t said to me over the years that the very practice of knocking on your constituent’s door at election time has moved from being a relatively pleasant experience, 20 years ago, to now, quite frequently, being an aggressive experience.

“People are picking up the tone, the cynical, anti-establishment tone, on social media, which can be very aggressive and very unpleasant, particularly women members of the Oireachtas have experienced this; they are subject to what can only be described as vile abuse at times.”

He said the comments sections of online newspapers needed to be regulated just as much as comments on Facebook and Twitter et al.

Mr Feeney said The Irish Times and the Irish Independent had introduced controls on their online comment services that had helped to “civilise” such content.

The Press Ombudsman is a non-statutory role and provides a service for readers who want to complain about material published by print and online newspapers and magazines that have volunteered to be subject to the code of practice of the Press Council. It does not have a role in relation to broadcast material.

Mr Feeney told Deputy Cormac Devlin of Fianna Fáil at the committee meeting on Thursday that the existence of the ombudsman's office helped to support the overall standards of journalism and the principle of truth and accuracy.

“I don’t know a journalist who doesn’t believe in the value of truth and accuracy.”

Pandemic impact

The work of his office had changed very radically in the past two years, when it got a large number of complaints about the coverage of the pandemic.

“The majority of those complaints were from people who are basically opposed to vaccination, or people who are opposed to measures such as working from home, and mask-wearing, etc.”

What these complainants were really doing was expressing their view that they disagreed with public health policies, he said, but they were not able to point to breaches of the code of practice for journalists.

“It is the message that people don’t like, rather than the journalism itself.”

He thought the pandemic had been well handled, and responsibly handled, by the traditional media. It had not ignored the fact that there were people out there who were opposed to vaccination, or to some of the public health measures, he noted.

He said the role the press had played during the pandemic made a significant contribution to the way the country had faced the challenges of the last two years.

“My view is that the pandemic has helped public confidence in the traditional media, and I think that is probably contrasted with social media, where most of the claims about the dangers of vaccination etc are to be found.”

It was mostly conspiracy theorists who said that because newspapers relied a lot on advertising paid for by the Government, that this indirectly influenced their coverage, he said.

“I don’t know any journalist who pulls his or her punches about Government simply because there is an ad about Covid from the HSE. It doesn’t happen like that.”

Families targeted

Senator Eugene Murphy of Fianna Fáil said he had experienced people posting "vile" material anonymously on social media about him and his family.

Mr Feeney said that, in his personal view, such anonymity allowed “too much freedom to abuse, too much freedom to defame people, too much freedom to be aggressive, etc”.

He welcomed planned regulation of social media, which he said was absolutely vital. The proposals include a planned new online safety commissioner who will be charged with policing how social media sites deal with harmful content on their services.

"I think it [the planned regulation] is a really necessary measure," he told Deputy Emer Higgins of Fine Gael. "I think the key issue is do these social media companies address complaints."

Offensive or threatening material needed to be taken down quickly, but the structures that were in place for social media firms for dealing with the public were not at all user-friendly, he said. “For example, there is no telephone number where I can ring Facebook.”

He said methods had to be found to support national and local media, but that direct financial support from Government could create a perception that this was influencing content.

A levy on social media could be channelled to local media, without that being seen as Government funding, he said.

Mr Feeney said it was important to the State that it had a strong national media.

Independent Deputy Richard O'Donoghue said he used social media to get his message out and criticised what he said was the amount of time that RTÉ gave to Government representatives as against Independent politicians.

This article was amended on February 17th, 2022

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent

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