Unwise to allow web twitterings too much credence


INSIDE POLITICS:The media should be wary of following the latest fads, which will inevitably be replaced by the next big thing

THE PATHETIC end to Chris Andrews’s political career, as a result of his involvement with a bogus Twitter account, should be a salutary warning to politicians and journalists about the pitfalls of the social media.

Following on the heels of the blow to RTÉ’s reputation caused by the broadcast of a bogus tweet during the presidential election debate last October, the dangers involved in giving too much credence to Twitter should have become clear.

We have seen a presidential candidate, Seán Gallagher, who was in genuine contention with less than a week to go in the election, having his chances effectively scuppered by a bogus tweet.

Now we have seen the former Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin South East destroy his chances of ever returning to national politics after he was unmasked as having used a bogus Twitter account to try to gain political advantage over a constituency rival.

Ironically, he was tracked down and unmasked by an individual who set up another bogus Twitter account to set a trap for the former TD.

How Andrews allowed himself to be persuaded into setting up a bogus Twitter account to further his political ambitions beggars belief, but the episode should again highlight the sheer lack of credibility that attaches to so much of what passes for political comment on Twitter and the internet itself.

The mainstream media has given an entirely undeserved credibility to such outpourings by paying so much attention to what is essentially online graffiti, whether anonymous or not.

It may well be, Simon and Garfunkel sang, that the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls but they are not quoted regularly in media and allowed the huge significance that is attached to online comment.

Bogus tweets are just one way in which the so-called new media has begun to undermine the credibility of political debate. Much of the commentary about Irish politics on the internet is unreliable, nasty and of dubious origin – but some of it manages to leach into the mainstream debate.

The vicious tenor of debate on Twitter or the internet is not restricted to those using the cloak of anonymity. Some people with supposed professional authority appear to have no problem tossing insults and taunts at people with whom they simply happen to disagree.

Writing in this newspaper a few weeks ago, John Waters remarked on the way in which internet discourse was not only coarsening public discussion but was reducing debate to the level of exchanges between “fishwives and pub bores”.

There is a striking difference between the considered and frequently witty tone adopted by people who write letters, or emails, to this newspaper for publication, and the at times unpleasant and boorish commentary of some of those who post comments on the web version of the paper.

Mainstream political parties and the mainstream media for that matter don’t appear to know how to cope with the advent of social media. To compensate, they have been leaning over backwards to exaggerate the impact of the new forms of media on public affairs.

For instance, in the last general election, Fine Gael invested a lot of resources in its campaign on social media and brought in an expert from the United States at huge expense to direct the operation. In the aftermath of the election, the assessment was that the exercise had a minimal impact and was a complete waste of money.

A more scientific assessment of the effectiveness of social media in Ireland is available from a Eurobarometer poll undertaken in the aftermath of the recent referendum on the fiscal treaty.

Asked what were the information sources that helped them to make up their minds on which way to vote, television and radio came in first place, with 60 per cent citing the broadcast media as an influence.

Newspapers came in second place, with 32 per cent saying they had an influence in helping to make up minds. Third place went to relatives and friends. By contrast, social media was in eighth place, with 7 per cent citing its outlets as an influence.

This raises the question why the mainstream media, which have so much more credibility with the public when it comes to politics and current affairs, have lent such credence to social media, whose main impact has been to undermine civilised standards of debate – never mind the long-term viability of traditional media.

The lesson for both politicians and the media is that while they should always be conscious of the need to adapt and modernise, they need to be wary of following the latest fads which will inevitably be replaced by the next new thing.

Our political system and traditional media both have huge strengths that are often taken for granted by the followers of the latest web fashion.

At the Parnell Summer School last weekend, John Bruton pointed out that the strictly disciplined Irish party system instigated by Parnell had enabled the country to face up to its economic problems more quickly and effectively than other EU countries in a similar predicament.

It is certainly arguable that while our political system facilitated one set of politicians, with the enthusiastic support of the electorate, in bringing the country to the brink of ruin, it also underpinned the painful move back from the brink.

The traditional media, too, played a role in helping people to understand what had happened and what the solution might be – in sharp contrast to the abusive and fatalistic commentary that dominated on the web.

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