Is it time for a debate over online ‘manners’?

Freedom of expression is a fundamental principle on which democracy is based, writes Alison O’Brien

Sixteen-year-old Swedish  climate activist Greta Thunberg (C) participates in the climate strike in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, last month. Photograph:  EPA/Valerie Blum

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (C) participates in the climate strike in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, last month. Photograph: EPA/Valerie Blum

 

Not eating with your mouth open and saying ‘thank you’ are just some of the manners which have been drilled into generations of children by their elders.

Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why our generation is experiencing such difficulties with manners albeit on a different forum, namely the internet.

For adults and parents whose children are now in their teens or twenties, the internet was undeniably a whirlwind with which they have had to grapple.

There was no one there to explain to them how to use this exciting new technology, let alone guide them regarding the rules of online etiquette. It has been a steep learning curve for society.

Those of us who are young adults are undoubtedly witnessing the early stages of development of regulations, etiquette and behavioural standards that will ultimately regulate the fruits of the technological boom which has been facilitated by the internet over the past thirty years.

It is now in our hands to determine what ‘manners’ ought to apply to the internet and most importantly to social media platforms. But, experience tells us it is also an area in which we must exercise extreme caution.

Greta Thunberg became a household name as a result of her role as a climate activist and her passionate address before the United Nations General Assembly. Following a segment on RTÉ’s Ryan Tubridy Radio Show, Twitter went into meltdown with #RyanTubridy trending globally over comments made by the RTÉ presenter about the climate activist.

Tubridy presented a relatively moderate view as he teased out an issue which he said he was “in two minds” over.

On the one hand, he expressed support for the climate change activists who continue their protests this week.

On the other hand, he expressed concern for Greta citing how her anxious appearance caused him to think of his own daughter and to imagine his response if she was in Greta’s shoes.

At all times, it was clear that his comments were a purely personal opinion.

Whilst many sixteen year olds may not agree with some of his comments, it was undoubtedly abundantly clear from the totality of what he said that he was not intentionally setting out to insult or cause disrespect.

Yet comments on Twitter ranged from the supportive to rude, personally insulting, cruel and outright defamatory.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental principle on which democracy is based and some would argue that the right of Twitter users to comment on Tubridy’s comments is the very definition of freedom of expression.

But from the landslide of negative comments on Twitter it was obvious that many wanted to silence Ryan and essentially deprive him of his freedom of expression.

This incident is evidence that we often forget that freedom of expression is just like having a conversation (even if online) as it is a two-way process in which listening and responding are essential elements.

Society is currently on a slippery slope as regards freedom of expression.

Minority views can be difficult for the majority to listen to but does the same not hold true when the minority is faced with the majority’s viewpoint?

All opinions whether pleasing or displeasing to our ears surely have a right to be heard yet increasingly via social media we as a society seem to be attempting to shut down anything that appears to be an unpopular view.

We are forgetting something which is fundamental and that is intent.

Intent could become the yardstick to determine what is appropriate behaviour online in this country.

Whilst Tubridy clearly did not intend to cause harm with his comments, the same cannot be said of most of the Twitter comments that followed.

If something is not done to enhance this aspect of society, online behaviour activists and those seeking to protect freedom of expression could indeed be the next to find themselves speaking before the United Nations.