Former senior politicians criticise social media and its effect on public life

‘I’m a strong fan of social media being regulated appropriately’ – Mary Harney

Mary Harney and Mary Coughlan have spoken<NO1> forcefully<NO> about the ill effects of social media on public discourse at the MacGill Summer School 2021. File Photographs: Brian Lawless/ PA / Bryan O’Brien

Mary Harney and Mary Coughlan have spoken forcefully about the ill effects of social media on public discourse at the MacGill Summer School 2021. File Photographs: Brian Lawless/ PA / Bryan O’Brien

 

Two retired female politicians, both of whom held the office of Tánaiste, have spoken about the ill effects of social media on public discourse.

Cofounder and former Progressive Democrats TD Mary Harney and former Fianna Fáil TD Mary Coughlan agreed that social media has coarsened politics in Ireland at a MacGill Summer School 2021 discussion on Thursday morning.

Recalling the abuse to which she was subjected at the time of the financial crash, Mary Coughlan said “I was a married woman with two young children and my late husband was just apoplectic about the effects that it would have on the kids and on the family. I know that the newspapers were banned in our house because the children could read and they could see their mother’s photographs, things like that.”

Such abuse was “worse now because of social media. We didn’t have as much social media at the time. The vitriol is awful, it’s desperate and it’s not just here, it’s in other countries, the UK, the US as well where politicians are seen as fair game,” she said.

“It’s fairly difficult for people to be in public life at the best of times but to have all of that thrown on top of what you do is just absolutely awful. It shows a very coarse side to public life which is really not acceptable,” she said.

Mary Harney said she had spoken to a young female TD on Wednesday who said to her “you’ve no idea how bad it is”. She said ‘it’s really rough. The vitriol and hatred that’s targeted at women’.” She mentioned in particular that when the Mother and Baby Homes report came out women were targeted.

‘Vouch’

“They talk about what she looks like and how she speaks, never about what she said. And she said, and I can vouch for this because this was my experience, that it has a terrible affect on her family and her loved ones, parents, and I had the same. My mother used to get so upset and this would be in then traditional media rather than the social media and, more latterly, my husband Brian used to get really upset about things. These things take a big toll on families not just on the individual,” she said.

She was now “a strong fan of social media being regulated appropriately not just in Ireland but globally and I think the quicker that democratic governments can agree on appropriate regulation of social media the better.”

It was also the case that “whilst the person I spoke to yesterday is an adult, there are young people at school being bullied on social media. I know of a friend of mine who had to take her daughter out of a particular school because her classmates were actually bullying her on social media and the staff and the school felt they couldn’t do anything about it.”

She said “I think it’s really worrying what is happening with social media. I had left politics before social media took root. I think I would have found it extremely hard to operate in the current social media environment, quite honestly.”