Finn McRedmond: Jennifer Zamparelli falls foul of amplified outrage

This was another instance of social media exercising an overweening influence on traditional media

RTE

RTE

 

Face masks have become the latest pandemic-accoutrement to find themselves at the epicentre of a social media storm, as RTÉ Radio presenter Jennifer Zamparelli tweeted last night:

“We are having an open discussion on my show on RTE2fm tomorrow about face masks. Do you have strong opinions on wearing them or not wearing them? I’d love to hear from you …”

The backlash to what might seem like a perfectly innocuous comment was remarkable not just in its fervour but too in its scale. And Zamparelli was met with reams of criticism (some fair, some not) and a not insignificant amount of abuse.

The accusation of her detractors is that face masks – as a matter of public health – ought not to be up for debate; that RTÉ should not legitimise conspiratorial arguments of so-called “anti-maskers” by giving them a platform; and that it is the role of the broadcaster to make the case for masks clear to the public.

In fact, any attempt to cast face masks – especially in light of the anti-mask demonstrations over the weekend – as a worthy topic of debate is not just bad journalism but irresponsible. Perhaps a sackable offence, so the most ardent critics say. What next? Debating the proprieties of eating cyanide?

Meanwhile Zamparelli’s defenders – there are a few – were quieter in their support. This is a typical feature of how social media distorts debate – amplifying outrage (and in many cases faux-outrage) and burying temperate and nuanced conversation. Nonetheless, the case her supporters made was simple: The way to defeat bad thinking is via argument. You overcome bad ideas by challenging them with better ones. And, if the case for masks is so obvious and infallible then a radio discussion between proponents and detractors will reveal exactly that.

Zamparelli, in the end, cancelled the proposed segment. It is a shame. Not because the discussion over face masks would have been particularly enlightening (though it cannot hurt to hear the thinking of someone you disagree with), but because this was another instance of social media exercising an overweening influence on traditional media.

It is wrong, of course, to think cancelling the segment symbolises some kind of existential challenge to free speech. It does not. Those kinds of histrionics would assume that this discussion cannot happen at all (conveniently forgetting the large scale protests on the very question days prior); and that debating the proprieties of mask wearing is something that comes with the legitimate threat of silencing by the State.

Instead we are witnessing something far more commonplace. How social media – and Twitter specifically – eradicates nuance and amplifies simple and oftentimes aggressive opinions, with little care given to those on the receiving end. And how that puts undue and disproportionate pressure on traditional media outlets.

When Bari Weiss – a high profile opinion editor and writer at the New York Times – resigned in July, she lamented in her resignation letter how her paper had become captured by the rigid heterodoxy of her colleagues, who import their views wholesale from Twitter:

“Twitter is not on the masthead of the New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space.”

It is a lofty warning to employ in the case of Zamparelli’s Twitter misstep. But the lessons to be gleaned are the same – allowing a Twitter backlash (which is almost certainly not representative of the views of the majority of the country) to exercise editorial control over RTÉ’s programming is a troubling situation. Not least because Twitter is a platform that trades in outrage; one that encourages public shaming; and one that thrives off pretending complicated questions are actually black and white certainties.

There may be good reason for RTÉ not to host a debate on face masks. That is, at best, a secondary concern. Far more troubling is this: should social media be wielding such editorial power?

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