Colum Kenny: Fair debate is under threat from the web

It demands a new political struggle, to ensure that the internet is ultimately accountable to democratic values and forces

In theory the Internet is equally open to all. Just like the Ritz Hotel. But the rich and powerful are best placed to use it. Image: iStock

In theory the Internet is equally open to all. Just like the Ritz Hotel. But the rich and powerful are best placed to use it. Image: iStock

 

SIPO (the Irish Standards in Public Office Commission) is like that little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in a hole in a dyke. It is struggling to keep Irish elections watertight. Meanwhile, a flood of bias and manipulation on the Internet threatens to overflow society and drown democracy.

The Trump administration is now actively attacking Internet neutrality, making it easier for the rich and powerful to marginalize what they don’t like, and to use dark methods of presenting their versions of reality to people searching for news and information online.

You might think that liberals and leftists would be on SIPO’s side, especially given fears about the use of the worldwide web to twist public debate. Yet Amnesty Ireland and others are calling for looser regulation.

And Minister Katherine Zappone is “disappointed” at being dropped from a cookery programme that is due to air during the coming abortion referendum. But TV3 can ask her back later, and is right to risk erring on the side of fairness.

SIPO is demanding that Amnesty Ireland return €137,000 it received from a foundation funded by the multinational billionaire George Soros. The money is intended to help make abortion more freely available in Ireland. SIPO says that the donation runs foul of Irish laws intended to stop non-national actors influencing the Irish political process.

Laws to keep Irish elections fair include the ban on donations from abroad, as well as a rule that broadcasters maintain balance in political and constitutional debates. The challenge for citizens is to understand why such laws are needed, and to ensure further that companies controlling big Internet and other media gateways answer to society rather than dictate to it.

The Internet is manipulated. Russian interference in foreign elections is just one factor. There are also super-sophisticated systems, linked to algorithms, that play with our heads by tracking our behaviour online and sending commercial or other data to us in ways that flatter our tastes while inflaming our emotions.

Russia is easy to denounce. Less visible are private institutions that can afford to promote ideological or other objectives by populating chat spaces and feedback sites with opinions that they want ordinary web users to think are widely held. Companies unknown to us have access to mounds of our personal data.

In theory the Internet is equally open to all. Just like the Ritz Hotel. But the rich and powerful are best placed to use it.

There is nothing new about the problem of media control. That’s why Ireland and Britain, for example, have rules on balance in broadcasting. The rules are based on an enlightened ideal that it is not just fair but good for society to hear the opinions of those with whom many disagree,

Some strident voices in favour of marriage equality and freer abortion have wanted the rules bent in their favour. Yet the marriage vote itself showed that fears that an open debate would stymie reasonable change were unfounded. If fairness rules are weakened it is not the poor or marginalised who will benefit.

Amnesty’s militant position on domestic abortion risks compromising its core business of tending to prisoners of conscience and also its funding base. Not all who support the law that SIPO is enforcing are illiberal bigots.

And what kind of equality do liberals really want? Are social equality and access to media for all important? Or just the kinds of equality that suit multinational executives and middle-class professionals in their daily lives?

A balanced media is vital for a healthy democracy, and this needs to be asserted. The USA had a law on fairness in broadcasting too, but it was overturned by the right-wing and big business. And so we got FOX NEWS, which is beyond parody as a tool of distortion, bias and propaganda. The US Supreme Court overturned rules on political funding. The rise of the right was helped by both developments.

Freedom of speech is threatened when our sense of fairness and neutrality is stood on its head by liberals, even with the best of intentions. The challenge for liberals now is to reassert afresh the values of the enlightenment and social democracy, not to undermine them.

There is a fight for democracy in the teeth of powerful multinational forces that resent regulation. They resent whatever stands in their way. The defence of democracy requires not only the protection of existing national safeguards for meaningful free speech. It also demands a new political struggle, to ensure that the Internet is ultimately accountable to democratic values and forces.

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