independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Liz O’Donnell: Hate mail was a lot easier to ignore before social media

Call me old-fashioned but I still don't get the modern obsession with social media. I have never felt the need to communicate or be informed by Twitter. The lawyer in me recoils at the notion of random and unguarded mass communications. What is to be gained from such a scrappy, ill-considered dialogue? Increasingly there is evidence that it is capable of doing great harm to individuals.

The use of Twitter in politics has become a hot topic of discussion. And for good reason, given the explosive potential for mischief-making and worse.

The next general election will be a real test not just for candidates desperately seeking re-election. Party colleagues in drastically redrawn constituencies, will become rivals like never before in the race for survival. All the indications are that protocols about the use of social media in elections need to be in place before then. Success in politics is intrinsically linked with reputation. In the heat of a six-week election campaign a slur or slight on character can be ruinous and irreparable in the short term.

Politicians have taken to Twitter with gay abandon. There were some early mishaps, as when Simon Coveney TD was left red-faced having questioned the sobriety of the then-Taoiseach in a tweet that unfortunately went global. Drama continued with the disastrous publication of a false tweet during the 'Frontline' presidential election debate, which scuppered the campaign of the leading candidate. A complaint about RTE by Sean Gallagher to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland was upheld but too late to be of any solace to the injured party. New guidelines and protocols have allegedly been put in place by the national broadcaster but there has been no visible shift in the use of Twitter in live programming since the debacle.

Then there was the bizarre allegation that former TD Chris Andrews posted anonymous and derogatory tweets about his Fianna Fail constituency rivals in Dublin South-East. During the FF-Green Coalition Senator Dan Boyle regularly tweeted whatever was on his mind, including suggestions of coalition tensions. Similarly these days, tweeting has become the 'pirouette' of choice for members of the awkward squad in the Labour Parliamentary Party. And there are countless other examples best known to the tweeting community, of which happily I am not a part.

But the recent suggestion by a family member of the late Shane McEntee TD that vitriolic personal comments posted anonymously on social media sites may have contributed to his tragic death by suicide has raised the temperature of the debate.

Verbal abuse and hate mail unfortunately come with the territory when one is a minister. In my day, it was all handwritten scrawl, which was easier to ignore than to decipher. Now access to the victim by social media is immediate, vicious and too often anonymous.

Whatever about the cut and thrust of politics, which in the main is an adult sport, the negative impact of social media sites on youngsters is only beginning to emerge. Not before time, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte has called for an investigation by an Oireachtas Committee into the measures needed to address some of the most insidious aspects of cyber bullying.

The silence of the technology giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, is curious. These corporates should be invited to appear before the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications later this month.

Because social media is such a relatively new phenomenon the research on it is only evolving, the rules of play unwritten. As demonstrated by the Arab Spring it can be a magnificent instrument of empowerment and democratic debate in oppressive political environments.

But in the free world, we need a whole architecture of compliance, verification and protocols for behaviour in cyberspace. And Ireland could be a world leader in this, particularly when it comes to child protection. Other European countries are wrestling with the need for regulation of social media services. Some, like Ireland, are relying on existing anti-hate, anti - harassment or libel laws. A few high-profile prosecutions such as have been taken in the UK recently would show the cyber bullies in this jurisdiction that they cannot act with impunity. Standing up to bullies is always the first step on or off-line.

Fervent opposition and threats relating to abortion legislation will have dominated emails to deputies over the Christmas recess. And with "hearings" on abortion set to commence in committee before the draft heads of bill are even published, there will be no let-up in the pressure. Dragging out the legislative process may only make things more polarised, leading to a continuation of demonstrations and screaming matches. And all because the Government is still trying to placate and appease a cohort of opinion which, after 30 years, we all know is not for turning.

Irish Independent

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