Wednesday 23 October 2019

Brendan O'Connor: An Taoiseach, mindfulness and the Politics of 'Likes'

Leo Varadkar prefers new media to old media, but he should remember that he who lives by social media, dies by social media, says Brendan O'Connor

Leo Varadkar sent a letter to Mr Martin on Friday seeking talks on extending the deal
Photo: Getty Images
Leo Varadkar sent a letter to Mr Martin on Friday seeking talks on extending the deal Photo: Getty Images
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

It's easy to see why Leo likes new media more than he likes the pesky old media. He has said as much himself. The old media is obsessed with the story over the truth; even the political hacks are more interested in titbits of gossip. Whereas new media, like Facebook and Twitter, does what it is told, largely. If you want to put out a message - anything from a picture of you filling a dishwasher to a statement on something less important, like politics - you can put it out directly on social media, where it won't be mediated or distorted by mischievous journalists.

New media is very much the dream in some ways. You can communicate directly with people, in your own words. Yes, there's all that 'fake news' business. But the benefits of new media far outweigh the downsides for most politicians.

Leo also sees new media as the future. And he's firmly on its side. He thinks that old media is only critical of new media because they've taken all our ads away. In his heart, Leo is a Silicon Valley-style libertarian, who believes that governments shouldn't meddle with the tech companies.

He has said more than once that he would prefer the likes of Facebook to regulate themselves. He doesn't believe in having a Digital Safety Commissioner either, something he had discussed with Mark Zuckerberg the month before he decided he didn't think it was the way to go.

Empathy is possibly a strange word to use about a meeting between Leo and Zuck, but you could imagine that each of their synapses detected something familiar in the other. Two oft-misunderstood boy kings.

Of course, one of Leo's own lieutenants, Hildegarde Naughton, has now said firmly that the tech giants are incapable of regulating themselves and the time for self-regulation is over, so Leo will possibly have to - as they say in Silicon Valley - "pivot" on that one. But that's fine. Move on. The past is the past.

The trouble with running your politics in the social media age is that you can end up indulging in the Politics of Likes. We talk a lot about how difficult it is for young people to grow up in this world of instant feedback on everything about you, about the pressure to get more likes, and the panic when you don't get the likes. But no one thinks of the poor politicians. While politics was always quite a short-term game, dependent on getting enough 'Likes' in the next election, the era of instant social media feedback on everything seems to be in danger of making it an even shorter-term game.

Leo Varadkar famously took five minutes out, while in the company of journalist Pat Leahy, for "mindfulness". Mindfulness, - being in the now, living in the moment - is generally regarded as a good thing these days. We are all encouraged to practise it. But doing politics in the moment, the Politics of 'Likes' - with instant feedback all the time, and with, as Timmy Dooley pointed out at the Facebook Committee hearings last week, outrage being the thing that generates most heat, if not light, - can lead to a form of extreme, minute-to-minute politics.

The Politics of Likes, the politics of the moment, is a politics where there is little time to reflect on things, where you are continually under pressure to come up with instant answers to everything, where you are constantly working to keep momentary outrage at bay.

Leo Varadkar was right when he said last Wednesday that the women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal who have gone public, have had a deep impact on all of us. Indeed, the impact, in the moment, of Vicky Phelan standing on the courtroom steps, or Emma Mhic Mhathuna stopping the nation in its tracks on Morning Ireland, was enormous. And the pressure was on Leo and Simon to change the narrative, and quickly.

In his book Contagious, Jonah Berger writes about the kind of emotions that are likely to make things go viral. Some emotions, like sadness and contentment, are low arousal, and tend not to make people talk about them. It is the high-arousal emotions, like amusement, awe, anger, anxiety and outrage, that spur people into action and get them talking. And these women made people sad, yes, but they also made people anxious, angry and outraged, as well as inspiring awe. This story was tailor-made to rouse people and tailor-made to be talked about non-stop, on social media and in real life. And Leo and his people were smart enough to know this and smart enough to know that they needed to react fast, and move the story on.

But the problem with this is that you panic and throw out a simple answer to what is a very complex question. The temptation is to say something, anything, that will get you out of the bad moment, and back into getting likes, even if you know that maybe you should be "more clear".

So Leo, a product of the digital age, said what he needed to say at that moment. After all, as they tell you in mindfulness, the past is the past and can't be changed, and the future hasn't happened yet, so all we have is the now. So Leo said what he had to say in the now. Which is that he will fix this. He will make it OK for these women. No more of them will be dragged through the courts. Bring on the likes.

If we didn't live in a world of instant likes, there may have been more time for Leo's people to think about this, and to come up with a more considered response to the crisis, one that might have stemmed the fire of outrage, bought some time, but allowed for the legal system, for events, for whatever complexities might unravel. But he didn't. He went for the instant hit of dopamine that the young people like so much; he got himself out of the awkward moment. And presumably hoped it would all die down a bit and there would be time to subtly shift position depending on what happened next.

And look at him now. He has had to row back on his initial position. And now, without any real examination of the workability of each measure he announces, he is having to propose new measures practically by the day. A redress scheme was discussed at some stage too. Now we have a judge looking into alternative ways of dealing with the cases.

We are to have a public commission of inquiry, while another inquiry, the Scally inquiry, which has been hampered by the HSE, is still not finished up. And we have the awkward situation of the Taoiseach having to be the one to say that not all of these women may be victims of negligence and we will need to see expert reports - so the Taoiseach, instead of the lawyers, is now the one seeming to demand the proof, seeming to doubt some of these women.

Topping off this mess is the fact that in dealing with the Ruth Morrissey case, you have to think the Taoiseach is getting very close to the legislature interfering with the judiciary.

All because there was no time - time to wait, to do nothing, to think.

All because of the politics of the moment, the Politics of 'Likes'.

Leo had another bad moment last week, when he was caught unawares about the selling of mortgages by PTSB to a vulture fund. When it was thrown at him on camera, Leo gave an unfortunate awkward giggle almost, and admitted it was the first he had heard of it.

Paschal Donohoe, who seems to live less in the moment, said later that he has been aware of this since January but there's nothing he can do, and PTSB had to do this under ECB rules.

But, perhaps demonstrating a touch of the politics of living in the moment, Paschal asserted that he was confident all the mortgage holders involved will still be protected, the same as if they were with PTSB.

Let's hope that moment doesn't come back to bite him.

Sunday Independent

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