Saturday 19 January 2019

Varadkar should heed social media warnings

The Taoiseach does not seem to understand the dangers

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Not a single day is allowed to pass without Taoiseach Leo Varadkar uploading a photograph of himself to one or all the many social media platforms he enjoys flooding with content.

Every day, the Taoiseach treats us to new images or, if we are really a lucky, a video of him smiling benignly beside some world leader or pressing the flesh at a Fine Gael constituency event.

No matter where he goes or who he meets, there is always a special adviser on hand to take a photograph before uploading it to the internet with a catchy comment.

On Fridays he releases his weekly video messages, which is essentially the Taoiseach discussing the positive issues he encountered that week.

For instance, in his recent video he didn't expand on his suggestions that people should ask their parents to help them save for a mortgage deposit or, if that didn't work, they could emigrate and work abroad to save up the cash for the down payment.

Instead, we got the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe bundled up outside snowy cabins in Davos talking about attracting more businesses into Ireland.

But you can hardly blame the man. Varadkar has, after all, tweeted his way into power. His social media persona, quirky socks and alpaca photos included, has become part of his charm and is also used as a political weapon.

Remember he tweeted a photo of his election posters in the middle of government negotiations? The same talks he hoped would collapse so Enda Kenny would sling his hook and give Leo a go at running the country.

According to last week's The Irish Times opinion poll, he has a 60pc personal approval so he's unlikely to ease off on the tweets and Facebook posts any time soon. He also won't want to see the €5m he spent on a new arm of government specifically tasked with tweeting him back into power go to waste. But the problem is, for a guy who spends so much time using social media, he does not seem to understand the dangers posed by theses websites owned by multi-billion euro tech firms, especially to children.

As we have seen this week from the shocking details of the Matthew Horan child abuse case, social media is a breeding ground for sick paedophiles. Horan coerced and blackmailed children into providing him with sexually explicit images. The case understandably terrified parents who see their children disappear into their bedrooms with mobile phones.

You would expect the case would focus the Taoiseach's mind on internet safety but instead confusion continues around when, if ever, Denis Naughten's plan to establish a Digital Safety Commissioner will happen.

Varadkar also publicly shot down a proposal by Junior Minister for Mental Health Jim Daly which would see the State issue unique codes which would be used to log on to social media websites and make people responsible for their online behaviour. The idea is at an embryonic stage but it still merits more than a public dismissal.

Varadkar has benefited hugely from social media and perhaps this has coloured his judgment. There is also the not-so-inconsequential matter of the amount of jobs Facebook, Google and others have created in this country. They also pay a fair bit of tax into the Government's coffers when they can't find a way to avoid doing so. But perhaps it is time for the Taoiseach to take into account the views of ministers who see social media as more than just a place to upload photographs of the latest pair of socks they've been given.

Sunday Independent

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