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Una Mullally: We must be smart in identifying public opinion and red flags in political discourse

Obsession with civility can deflect from legitimate anti-government criticism

Nobody who cares about democracy, decency and safety could argue that antagonistic, spiteful protests – in some cases involving people who spout homophobic and racist abuse – outside Leo Varadkar’s home are normal or acceptable. They are ugly and rotten. But they are not necessarily a consequence of general and genuinely held criticisms of the Tánaiste or his government’s policies. Most rational people, even if they’re really angry, even if they voice their criticisms of politicians on social media in the most robust ways, are not going to do something as extreme as turn up at someone’s house spouting nonsense.

When it comes to the slide in the standard of discourse (or perhaps that slide becoming more visible thanks to social media), we have to be smart about discerning what is a genuine red flag, and what is a reflection – however fun-house-mirrored – of a slice of authentic public sentiment. All of this, of course, is underscored by how social media’s algorithms push people towards polarisation. Last week, Twitter admitted that it amplifies more tweets from right-wing politicians and news outlets. The right is very angry, and anger is good business for social media companies.

So let’s get one thing straight: protests by radicalised conspiracy theorists and far-right fundamentalists who begin coalescing online, are different to general (sometimes insulting and disproportionate) criticisms of politicians and political parties. Does the latter contribute to a nasty atmosphere? Yes. But it is a consequence – however unpleasant – of anti-government sentiment, which is widespread. I am not endorsing or excusing any of it, but we have to be honest about the nuances.

Whataboutery is often rightly bemoaned, but there are times when it is relevant to compare how political and media systems characterise criticism, versus the policies and behaviours that actually instigate that criticism.

Accountability

Nathalie Olah’s 2019 book, Steal as Much as You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity, examines the corrosive effects of neoliberalism in the “lost decade” of British austerity in the 2010s. She contextualises the defensive frameworks that were erected to shroud politicians and media from accountability and to position anyone who launches robust criticism against them as savage.

In the Dáil, we witness hollering and insults that would see you fired in any other workplace

“It was clear that a perverse logic reigned, one that was driven by a fanatical obsession with good manners, delivery and PR nous,” Olah writes. “Its strange rules dictated that the word ‘stupid’ was more offensive than the rising levels of poverty, homelessness and other forms of degradation that had prompted its utterance. Meanwhile, for decades, we’d heard ‘good taste’, ‘pragmatism’, ‘sensibleness’, ‘civility’, ‘respectability’ and ‘decency’ used ad nauseam to justify policies whose real-world effects amounted to widespread suffering and harm… while also being used as a line of impenetrable defence against any outside criticism.” In other words, tweeting personal abuse at a politician is wrong and unpleasant, but it is not comparable, for example, to the housing crisis politicians created.

In the “discourse discourse”, mainstream media often lets itself off the hook. What about media’s role in “toxic discourse”? The current affairs radio shows hosting bun fights. The shouting and roaring in television studios during political “debates”, where viewers are left with nothing but a sense of frustration and rage. Newspapers publishing contrarian columnists who represent nothing but their own spiteful fears and insecurities, for clicks and heated reaction. Bear pit comment sections where insults flow freely. What can we do better? In the two jurisdictions we are culturally closest to, the descent to toxicity in public discourse was not led by social media platforms – although they gleefully jumped on the bandwagon and made things a thousand times worse. No, in the US it was led by Fox News, and in England it was led by the right-wing press’s propaganda campaigns.

Politicians’ behaviour

And what about the behaviour of politicians? In the Dáil, we witness hollering and insults that would see you fired in any other workplace. It is also difficult to square Irish politicians’ criticisms of what happens on social media, with how they cosied up to the social media companies that own those platforms, and characterise their corporate presence here as evidence of Ireland’s shiny (but really grimy) economic progress. So which is it? Are these companies rubbish dumps that are negatively impacting democracy, or are they the great modern tent poles of our beloved FDI?

There is a difference between people who shout at politicians on the internet yet are still tethered to reality, and those who have lost their sense of reason to conspiracy or right-wing fundamentalism. Believing outrageous conspiracy theories is a delusion, often prompted by personal trauma, and a mental health crisis that is going unaddressed. This, as we have seen in several real-life demonstrations packed with conspiracy theorists, can end in violence.

We need to use every tool available to us to pressure social media companies to clean up their act. But every private individual, every politician and every media organisation can also lead by example. It’s much easier to control what you can do, than seek to change what others are at.