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Think about who is pulling at your heartstrings - and why

Conor Skehan


We need to confront attempts by activists to engage our hearts with emotions, rather than our heads with facts, writes Conor Skehan

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We increasingly live in a world of two types of media, traditional print or broadcast on one side with social media on the other — each has a diminishing overlap with the other (stock photo)

We increasingly live in a world of two types of media, traditional print or broadcast on one side with social media on the other — each has a diminishing overlap with the other (stock photo)

We increasingly live in a world of two types of media, traditional print or broadcast on one side with social media on the other — each has a diminishing overlap with the other (stock photo)

Many readers will have reacted to the global headlines of the last week about Billie Eilish and Kobe Bryant by asking 'Who?'

Both are global names in online households - but relatively unknown to users of traditional media. Each type of household will react with amazement upon learning about each other's knowledge or ignorance.

We increasingly live in a world of two types of media, traditional print or broadcast on one side with social media on the other - each has a diminishing overlap with the other. In the US, for instance, since 2018 social media has been used by adults more than newspapers as a news source.

Most people have an awareness of the controlling reputations of traditional media magnates like William Randolph Hearst, Robert Maxwell or Rupert Murdoch. But who has control of social media?

Much attention is focused on the activities of the owners of companies such as Facebook or Twitter - but what about the huge numbers who, in turn, use social media to attempt to influence public opinion in general and democratic elections, in particular? Who will be trying to influence your vote in the forthcoming General Election and how will they try to do it?

Placing political advertisements is the most obvious type of media influence. It is reasonably transparent and can be regulated. But this is just the tip of the iceberg - the real action in modern campaigning is to try to persuade and form opinions in ways that are indirect and not often obvious.

Traditional and new media are the target of many groups who specifically seek to influence public policy by ensuring the election of candidates who will implement measures that will further their aims. We call this activity 'lobbying'. The activity is well recognised and heavily regulated in more mature societies.

Many can have blinkered views about the identity of lobbyists - usually imagining they are exclusively employed by large businesses and other groups who are assumed to be uncaring about the common good.

Many good people can be blissfully and almost naively unaware of the scale, expenditure and influence efforts of organisations that promote 'good causes' - often classifying themselves as charities or Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

These unelected and unaccountable groups can have access to the highest levels of international agencies, such as the United Nations and the European Commission, often to the dismay of hard-won representatives of democratically elected national governments. Access by activists can even take the form of partnerships near the heart of government, often going completely unrecognised or regulated, despite being lobbyists. Significantly more vigilance is needed to regulate this reality.

Taking environmental lobbying, as an obvious and topical example. Many voters, especially the young, hold deep and passionate views about the need to protect the environment from human activities. In many cases they may be unaware that their activism is based on carefully constructed narratives that have been drawn up and promoted by surprisingly large and well-organised international environmental NGOs.

Organisations that spend millions annually trying to influence policy are assumed to be multinational industries and businesses. The cute panda logo is on the front of the World Wildlife Fund's annual international report; it details how over $300m was spent in 2019, while Greenpeace had a 2018 turnover in excess of €80m. Single-issue groups, such as Birdlife, spent over £20m the same year. Very large amounts of these funds are spent on activities that the organisations describe as public education, policy development or awareness raising - lobbying.

Farmers trying to explain their case in Brussels or Washington need to remember the size and wealth of the opponents who have visited before them. Lobbying for environmental causes is big business, yet many environmental organisations are horrified to be described as 'lobbyists' despite their extensive attempts to influence public policy. They prefer to be called 'campaigners' or 'activists'.

The dangers of well-meaning 'activists' has been long recognised. One of Cork's most famous orators, John Philpot Curran, said in 1790: "It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance." This is usually remembered as the political slogan, 'The price of freedom is eternal vigilance', however, the most important advice is often overlooked. Curran was warning against 'the active'. We need to extend that vigilance to those who seek to influence us - being especially vigilant about 'good causes'.

We need to continue to confront attempts by activists to engage our hearts with emotions, rather than our heads with facts, by demanding the truth - the whole truth.

We need to confront homelessness campaigners with the truth that rough-sleeping numbers and homeless figures in Ireland are falling, and with the whole truth that these are issues in every country and that we in Ireland are dealing with this very well compared to other countries. Dublin's 90 rough sleepers are rarely compared to London's 9,000. Ireland's 10,000 people in emergency accommodation are rarely compared to the UK's 320,000, which includes 127,000 children.

We need to confront environmental campaigners with the truth that most recorded extinctions took place prior to 1900 and that the majority of these occurred on long-isolated islands. We need to confront activists with the reality that over 15pc of land on earth is already protected - compared to the 11pc that is used for agriculture.

We need to continue to confront activists with the increasingly rare currency of boring facts and truth - especially the whole truth in the fullest context.

There is hope. There is good news, at least in Ireland. This country is estimated to be one of a handful of countries in the world with high media literacy. Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Estonia and Ireland were ranked at the top the Media Literacy Index 2019.

These countries are considered the best equipped to withstand the impact of fake news due to the quality of education, free media and high trust among people.

This is not a reason to be complacent. In a world where news is increasingly infiltrated by misinformation from activists, it is becoming apparent that media literacy needs to be actively supported.

Finland, the country with the highest media literacy score, has taught media literacy in primary and secondary school since 2016. These students learn skills that were once thought to be the sole preserve of newspapers - fact-checking, information evaluation, and critical thinking.

The key is to sustain an awareness of the potential 'to become a prey to the active' - as Curran warned back in 1790. The online world is raw, unchecked and unedited information - most of it devoid of context, much of it comprising partial information and some of it is just wrong, through either ignorance or malice.

We must not respond with cynicism by avoiding engagement with news. Critical thinking and vigorous questioning are the antidote.

Critical thinking is a habit that needs daily practice. What better chance to do so than to develop skills during this General Election campaign? Ask lots of hard questions on doorsteps, ideally in a Cork accent, to honour John Philpot Curran.

Just say, "Who told you that?"

Sunday Independent