Around the time of voting day in the general election, Jack Chambers did a strange thing. He stopped posting messages on Twitter and Facebook and switched off all notifications on his phone.
It was strange because the 25-year-old had just been elected to the Dáil in Dublin West as a new Deputy representing Fianna Fáil. For somebody who has made that breakthrough, it is human to bask in the flood of congratulatory messages from friends and supporters.
But the flood coming Chambers way was a different one entirely. There had been a low level of abusive and nasty messages during the course of the campaign. But Chambers appeared on Vincent Browne and declared himself "'pro-life". That's not a surprising viewpoint for a Fianna Fáil TD, which is seen as more morally conservative than other parties. Chambers is anti-abortion and would hold similar views to the likes of Dara Calleary and Michael McGrath. He himself says he is a moderate on this issue, so not an absolutist.
Torrent of abuse
The utterance seems to have opened the sluice-gate for a torrent of abuse on social media, some directed at his appearance, his views, his upbringing (his father is a surgeon). Some were plain ugly and nasty.
It became so hurtful and intolerable that he shut himself off from social media. The defence is always anger, but in some posts the scary froth around the mouth signifies something closer to rabies. This was as close as you can get to an online bullying campaign.
Some of the posts on Chambers are not repeatable. But others are on the outer limits of taste. Some mocked his hairstyle and appearance, others his innocence. Lovin’ Dublin, a website that usually reviews restaurants ran a crass article headlined “15 Tweets Taking the Absolute Piss out of Jack Chambers’ and said some were “positively glorious”.
Chambers was not alone. A few million social media messages went up during the campaign and a small minority, a few thousand, were deeply unsociable media. Most of them were from fearless tweeters using anonymous handles. The fourth estate wasn’t immune – a few journalists crossed the line when tweeting about politicians who they did not admire.
Those who were targeted belonged to a number of groups. Labour Party candidates were all targeted, but none more so than Joan Burton, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Joanna Tuffy, and Alan Kelly. The Fine Gael TD for Cork South Central Jerry Buttimer also got terrible abuse, with risible comments bordering on homophobia.
Two of the printable tweets on Buttimer. “Good riddance Jerry, Leave the door open for the rest of your cronies”, and “He can run to the hill with the rest of the liars.”
The others who seemed to be targeted were those with morally conservative views; a small unrepresentative group of tweeters seem to believe they have carte blanche to abuse them. Lucinda Creighton and Michelle Mulherin are two of those subjected to the nasties.
Some of the posts commenting on social media posts by Labour leader Burton should be subject to incitement to hatred legislation. One graphic referring to her adopted status was horrific, by any standard. “You f***ed us so now is the day to f*** you,” read a typical one.
Where is the provenance? In the past some Sinn Féin supporters (or shinnerbots as their opponents call them) have become involved in some nasty name-calling, but that minority was not prominent in the election. Some have come from a small minority of ad hoc anti-water and anti-austerity Facebook sites. The main source is the comments sections of these sites which are completely unmoderated.
"Was so delighted to see the funeral there of Aodhan O Riordán," reads one on the Dublin Says No to Austerity page. Brendan Howlin is continuously referred to as the "little sh**". A comment on a photograph showing refuse bags on the deserted Labour corridor in Leinster House says: "Pity Joan was not in one of those bags."
Axes to grind
Most have come from anonymous posters who have axes to grind and encounter no censorship. The most frequent targets over the past three years have been
, Máiría Cahill and the Healy-Rae brothers. Some do not accept that such abuse exists at the level that some politicians and commentators claim.
When this reporter asked for examples, Independent TD Joan Collins tweeted: "My treatment has been ok online. But then again I didn't do the Troika's neoliberal bidding in an arrogant fashion."
For Seamus Dooley, secretary general of the National Union of Journalists, there is an important principle here.
“The right to insult does not make it compulsory. Because there is freedom of expression does not mean all political discourse has to be crass and personalised,” he says Some of these people, he says, describe themselves as citizen journalists. But they are not, he argues.
“The distinction is that there has always been a decent recognition by professional journalists that while election candidates are public figures they are also private people with families . . . That is the decency element that social media seems to ignore. It’s a cheap substitute for debate. What differentiates journalists from tittle tattle and abuse is an adherence to a code of conduct.”