Kathy Sheridan: Safety laws needed to deal with online hatred

What can be done about erosion of civility and humanity is a challenge for us all

Kathy Sheridan: ‘Lessons learned from the experience of other countries with online safety commissioner and a six-week consultation period offer a chance to get this right, or as right as it can be for now.’ File photograph: iStock

Kathy Sheridan: ‘Lessons learned from the experience of other countries with online safety commissioner and a six-week consultation period offer a chance to get this right, or as right as it can be for now.’ File photograph: iStock

 

The recent protest outside the Minister for Health’s home, trapping the family inside with a newborn, shocked most rational humans and boomeranged badly on the protesters. But there was one sweetly old-fashioned aspect to it.

This lot behaved obnoxiously while showing their faces.

In a time when the weapon of choice is a pile-on of poisonous, distorted, soul-killing barbs from anonymous online warriors, that little gathering owned it.

It’s a bleak landscape we inhabit when this seems like a win.

The internet is here to stay. It comes down to how we call out abuse, how we constrain our own internet use, how we manage our children’s access

Not so long ago, women who expressed concern about online threats of rape, assault and murder were told to lighten/toughen up because it was only words.

But an online barrage of hatred and misogyny can no longer be regarded as distinct from a physical threat.

The anti-Brexit, ex-Labour MP Luciana Berger, whose suffering at the hands of online anti-Semitic tormentors from both left and right is well documented, required a security detail at her own party’s annual conference last year.

MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death a week before the Brexit referendum by a Britain First white supremacist, in a toxic atmosphere immeasurably heightened by online nationalist rhetoric, much of it directed to micro-targeted accounts.

It continues.

At the weekend, another British MP, Rupa Huq, tweeted an email from a Brexiteer calling her “a miserable, stinking, filthy EU whore” who should “return” to Bangladesh (where she has never lived).

Most people have had to develop a quick understanding of how online abuse can drain even the most resilient soul of joy and self-worth.

We know much more now about its corrosive effect on young lives; ask any secondary school year-head to tell you about the stratospheric levels of “anxiety”. But it has taken a while for many freebooted defenders of an unfettered internet to make the journey.

Some never will.

Oireachtas meeting

It is six years ago to the week since the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications first met to discuss social media abuse and cyberbullying.

The snigger potential for the cool kids down the back was limitless. A then-senator, Fidelma Healy Eames, provided rich fodder.

Her tone and questioning betrayed fear and bewilderment.

Parents were responsible for their children she agreed, but they couldn’t keep up with the technology. She used terms clearly unfamiliar to her and only dimly known to many adults, such as “fraping – where you’re raped on Facebook” and “sexting” and situations “where a person takes another’s identity on social media”.

She asked if people left a “digital footprint even when images are erased?”

Independent Senator Fidelma Healy Eames at a press conference organised by the No side in the same-sex marriage referendum. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times
Independent Senator Fidelma Healy Eames at a press conference organised by the No side in the same-sex marriage referendum. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

In a helpless stab at solutions, she wondered whether the ID of every user could be registered with an IP address in Ireland.

She was annihilated by the techies on Twitter, mocked for her “gross ignorance” while many professed deep suspicion that any government committee was even on the internet case: “The Internet allows alternative ideas a forum for expression. Hardly surprising that our political establishment hate it”.

“Censorship dressed up as tackling bullying”.

“Utterly moronic suggestions being put forward . . . Tying IP all addresses to names. Oh please”.

“Social media sites are not the problem. BULLIES ARE. Dressing down Facebook and Twitter is pointless to the point of being laughable. Dinosaur government”.

Expert contributors were applauded for stating that online speech was “more than adequately regulated” to deal with the rising panic.

Deep concern

Healy Eames’s questions were under researched and unsophisticated but they were a fair reflection of the deep concern, inexperience and fear-of-the-unknown that was haunting most of the population.

As it turns out, they were right to be fearful. Ask teenagers about Facebook and most will pity your naivety; they’ve moved elsewhere, to sites well beyond adult or Ireland’s ken.

The internet is a marvel (it hardly needs to be said) but it also generates environments where terrible things happen; quietly devastating things that rarely make the headlines but sap the soul and the will to live.

What can be done about that swift erosion of civility, trust and humanity is a challenge for every one of us.

The internet is here to stay.

It comes down to how we call out abuse of all kinds, how we constrain our own internet use (make it socially unacceptable to scroll while pushing a buggy or sharing a table?), how we manage our children’s access, how we support our teachers.

It’s about who we vote for (see Donald Trump) and the role models we choose. And obviously, it matters that the tech companies are forced to view human beings as something more than insensate commodities.

Plans announced this week for new online safety laws encompass the appointment of an online safety commissioner (OSC) – a notion simmering over several years.

The Minister for Communications, Richard Bruton, acknowledged some of the real practical difficulties as well as the danger of “unintentionally restricting legitimate freedom of speech and freedom of expression”.

Lessons learned from the experience of other countries with OSCs, such as Australia and Germany, and a six-week consultation period offer a chance to get this right, or as right as it can be for now.

Let it begin with a large dose of humility from those who once thought they knew it all.

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