Peter Casey controversy shows Ireland must change its response to prejudice

Election row underlines how media and political resistance to prejudice does not dispel it

The first time I heard Peter Casey’s controversial remarks was in this paper, in an article highlighting that the Taoiseach had condemned them. A majority of media outlets ran similar pieces, and indeed paid to promote these articles on social media. It is possible that if news media had not highlighted the rebuttals, I and many others would not have heard these comments by a then marginal candidate.

However, the Taoiseach and other public figures were right to come out and strongly condemn comments that were offensive to one of the most marginalised groups in the country. The media was also right to amplify the condemnation.

I say this even though evidence suggests that this will have amplified Casey’s offensive remarks. It was the best course of action in the circumstances, because it was too late to do anything more proactive.

Irish media outlets ordinarily take active steps to avoid spreading rumours and sensationalist or derogatory comments. This mirrors what in the fact-checking world is called “strategic silence”, the idea that occasionally it is a wiser choice to say nothing.

Strategic silence as an approach is based on two facts about facts. The first is that when you call out a statement as untrue, it can in fact amplify it, expanding its reach to new audiences who may not have heard the original statement. People will then often remember the lie, but will not always remember that it was untrue.

Disliked authority

The second is that the very act of saying that something is untrue or untrustworthy can in some circumstances make people more likely to believe it. This is especially likely when a segment of the population do not trust the people doing the fact-checking. The very act of a disliked authority stating that something is untrue, or indeed condemning something, provides an opportunity to challenge that authority.

Over the weekend members of the Irish media were defensive about their reporting of Casey during the campaign. Silence was not an option for political journalists covering what was happening in the presidential campaign, including inflammatory statements by a candidate. Once these remarks became public, senior figures had a duty to step in and denounce these comments. It was important for both members of the marginalised groups, and the rest of us, to hear repeated that these were not acceptable statements.

However, this reality enabled an opportunist to exploit an underexplored prejudice in Irish society.

Our voting system ordinarily incentivises building broad appeal. Candidates rely on second and third preferences to win. But with a week to go, a candidate polling at 2 per cent is most likely not playing to win. A more realistic goal is to get to 12.5 per cent, the vote share threshold that triggers the State repaying campaign expenses.

Failure by the media and politicians to engage with issues that are breeding prejudice does not make it go away

This was a low consequence vote where the outcome was all but secure, and a campaign with a large field, in a broader societal context of disgruntlement. In that context, having your name stand out mattered, and condemnation by “elites” could position you as the protest candidate.

If insights from countering misinformation are anything to go by, the problem here wasn’t the debates and discussions around the offensive comments, it was a broader and deeper failure to equip Irish society to deal with these discussions.

Fake news vaccine

Emergent approaches to dealing with misinformation focus less on countering specific stories – less on fighting each fire with fire as it arises – and more on building broader resilience, understanding and healthy scepticism among citizens to better enable us to evaluate statements as we hear them.

The approach is called inoculation, with an analogy made to a “fake news vaccine”, exposing people to poor-quality information in a controlled way. Inoculation is being used to counter things like climate change misinformation in two ways.

The first is equipping people to spot tactics used by those wishing to mislead, such as fake experts or false generalisations from individual events. A Dutch company, working with Cambridge University, developed a game that challenges you to become a "fake news tycoon", by trying out various strategies to get people to believe lies in a virtual world while trying to retain credibility.

The second is building up people’s comfort level with the scientific facts and counter-arguments to things like climate change denial. This takes time, investment and a commitment to enabling people to engage with facts, especially those that come into conflict with their experience or what feels like common sense.

While these techniques were developed to deal with misinformation, they can help us as we work out how to respond to the last few weeks. Failure by the media and politicians to deeply engage with issues that are breeding prejudice and frustration does not make them go away. As we have seen, it leaves space that individuals can exploit in political campaigns. This does not mean we should start amplifying ill-informed and hurtful rhetoric. It does mean that we need to make sure that we are equipped with the skills and evidence to address prejudice when it arises.

Liz Carolan is co-founder of the Transparent Referendum Initiative