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Irish politicians should lay off social media

Diarmaid Ferriter: TDs quick to criticise Twitter and Facebook but they need to look at their own use

TDs and Senators lined up during the week to lambaste social media companies Twitter and Facebook over trolling and anonymous accounts. A meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Local Government examining political advertising campaigns was the occasion for politicians to take the companies to task for their sins, and they are manifold. Anonymous abuse is a recurrent problem with social media output and the toxicity and bullying that has flourished in recent years is reprehensible. Politicians, however, also need to examine their own social media use as it is far too often the enemy of context and nuance and has compounded the problem of the decline in the quality of public and political discourse. Recently, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris launched his TikTok account amid a blaze of publicity announcing he had “finally taken the plunge” and was “not sure I quite know what I’ve let myself in for” but wants to use it “to keep in touch with you, keep you up to date and share a few insights”.

There seems to me a desperate neediness to this. Social media is primed to get people to think of themselves as leading and informing their “followers”, but that exercise too often becomes vacuous and indulgent. TikTok allows users to create short videos and Harris quickly proceeded to post a shot of a cup of tea being made with a sports game on in the background while informing his audience he was also doing “prep for tomorrow”.

Aren’t children doing their homework in front of the television disabused of the notion they are compatible exercises?

We do not need politicians communicating their every move and thought and the Minister for Higher Education of all things wasting time on these inanities is a sobering reminder of the dumbing down of his profession, especially when students need to be reminded that online content can frequently be unreliable and untrue. Cyber bullying is also rampant, prompting TikTok to include a bullying resource page in their “safety centre”. We have had no shortage of reminders in recent years of how social media posts can ignite unnecessary political storms, involve clandestine settling of scores and prompt splenetic exchanges. It is a cross-party problem. In 2012 Chris Andrews quit Fianna Fáil after it was revealed he posted tweets under a false name; he admitted the account was set up by him and “like-minded individuals” who were disenchanted with the party. Andrews, now a Sinn Féin TD, expressed his remorse: “For someone who is generally outspoken . . . I regret that I did not say things publicly”. At a Fine Gael parliamentary meeting in 2017 TD Kate O’Connell distributed printouts of derogatory and abusive tweets sent by a member of the Fine Gael executive council, Barry Walsh, who subsequently resigned from the council. The following year, former Fianna Fáil TD Declan Breathnach posted a tweet attacking Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald as condoning the murder of gardaí, after which McDonald initiated a High Court action against him (the case was settled and Breathnach apologised and retracted his comments). Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley found himself making a Dáil statement arising out of his tweets regarding the IRA and Leo Varadkar. A Facebook page under the title Sinn Féin that had amassed 16,000 followers was removed when it was revealed posts included abuse of political opponents.


There were also claims of bullying and sexism in Ógra Fianna Fáil on social media discussion groups for its members. Niko Kawonczyk, Ógra secretary for Co Monaghan, resigned because of what he stated was the organisation’s failure to address these claims, including an incident where female politicians were “ranked” on their physical appearance, while Fine Gael TD Joe Carey “liked” a tweet that described Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns as an “ignorant little girl” (he subsequently apologised). Politicians who have had to apologise for tweets, historic and current, have frequently maintained their tweets have been misunderstood or misrepresented and that they solemnly abhor the very things they are accused of, as if they are blind to the reality that a message of 280 characters will be anything but layered or sophisticated.

Having closely observed the 2016 US presidential election, communications academic Brian Ott suggested Twitter “trains our consciousness in particular ways . . .to devalue others thereby cultivating mean and malicious discourse”. His scholarly paper discussed Twitter under the subtitle “the politics of debasement” and focused on how it “privileges discourse that is simple, uncivil and impulsive . . . the age of Twitter virtually guaranteed the rise of Trump. Public discourse simply cannot descend into the politics of division and degradation on a daily basis without significant consequence”.

Irish politicians are correct to challenge the failings of the Twitter and Facebook companies, but they also need to look closely at their own social media addictions.