Friday 20 September 2019

Johnny Fallon: Social media is not the great evil many politicians try to paint it

Johnny Fallon

All of a sudden everyone seems to be talking about social media. Especially those who have little or no experience of it. As usual, everyone is an expert.

The latest raft of people condemning online activity centres on the area of abuse and bullying. These are, of course, very real and genuine problems. However, they are problems that run much deeper than social media. Bullying has been with us for many years and many have fallen victim to it.

Before the internet, people sometimes didn’t even realise how serious or vitriolic it could be. Nowadays of course this abuse can be viewed online, which leaves a record. It is important to remember that bullying is not caused by the internet or social media, rather it is a tool used by bullies and they will always find another way.

What seems most important to commentators and politicians at the moment is the matter of online abuse. Why? Because it affects them of course. Many years ago, before mass media, politicians spent their time travelling highways and byways talking to groups of people to get their message out there.

Back in the ‘20s and ‘30s politicians took plenty of personal abuse from crowds and individuals. They knew there was no option but to face it. Modern mass media changed things. Politicians don’t have to be out among every locality all the time. The people come to them through clinics, the media carry their message and you can be beamed into every living room in the country via TV or radio.

What is even better is that these are one-way tools, you do not hear what the people are saying in their living rooms and you can control when and where you do have to listen to feedback. Society will always evolve and find a way around such buffers; social media is nothing more than going back to a time when conversations had to be direct, two-way communication streams.

There is no time to send every question to the press office before replying, sometimes you have to answer and think for yourself.

Now there are quite a few who think that throwing personal abuse at a politician is OK. There can be quite a lot of vitriol and nasty attacks. The answer is not in more law or a committee of politicians talking about how bad they felt. Where abuse is sustained or propagates a lie then several cases recently have shown that the perpetrators can be found and dealt with.

The problem is that in serious cases the Gardai do not have the expertise or resources on hand to deal with it. New laws don’t change that. Where one-off abusive comments exists, then it is up to society itself to regulate this. The same way society reacts when someone starts shouting something on a street.

Personal abuse is a bit like spitting. Once upon a time in Ireland there was nothing wrong with gobbing on the street. Today, it’s seen as entirely unacceptable for any respectable person. Personal abuse must be seen as socially unacceptable, those that engage in it should be frowned upon. Like spitting on a street it says more about the person doing it than any message.

When it comes to the economy it seems we can’t come up with any original thinking, when it comes to social issues we spend our lives citing the examples of other countries and when it comes to the EU we will wait to see what the big boys decide.

However, when it comes to the internet, all of a sudden, we are going to try sort out the problems ahead of anyone. Politicians are not alone in this. Many well known journalists and commentators would like to see people abandon social media and the internet. They will tell you everything on it is lies, and there is certainly a fair amount of lies out there, it’s true.

They forget to mention that it remains the place that most stories also break and is the tool that spreads a message must faster and further. Online newspapers now allow for comments to be posted and some don’t like this either. It’s a fair point that many opinion pieces attract some personal abuse.

The point is, though, that those of us that are offered the opportunity to give our opinion need to get off our high horse and engage with those comments. They are not there to be ignored. For too long writing an article has been about giving your opinion and sailing on without ever having to hear an opposing view.

Yes, sometimes people get personal but most people do frown on that. Yes, sometimes it gets abusive but a lot of the time you might actually learn something. It is only right that our views are challenged and that the public can respond rather than anyone’s opinion being made to sound like the final word on a subject.

In my time I’ve had some comments I’d consider harsh and unfair, I've had some pretty bad stuff sent to me on Twitter, but it is still just comment. I had to learn to ignore some things when people got abusive but to look for the very real and very valid points people often make against things I say. For me this is too important to lose and therefore the abuse is worth it.

Then there are those who sit in their ivory towers and pontificate about spelling and grammar and how the internet is full of the uneducated. Don’t get me wrong, spelling and grammar is a very important thing. I wish I was better at it myself.

However, if I’m watching football should I dismiss the view or opinion of Alex Ferguson or Kenny Dalglish because their grammar is bad? If that’s the case most of the great football minds could be consigned to a scrapheap.

When it comes to politics, over the years, I have heard some very fine voices and wordsmiths talk absolute tosh. I have gone into meetings and pubs, in various so-called backwaters and had my opinions changed and met people who knew and understood politics as well as anyone I had ever met.

The grammar might be bad, the accent might sound wrong, it might not be couched in fancy terms but there could be no doubting that the opinion was valid and well reasoned. This is why the internet is successful and will continue to be so.

While it might suit some that such views are not heard and that such opinions are well vetted the reality is that politics, government and debate is something we all share equally and we are all entitled to a voice on. The internet and social media offers a forum for this. No more can opinions be voiced without ever having to be defended. This is the future and it’s not going away.

Johnny Fallon is a political commentator

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