Wednesday 19 December 2018

For democracy to work, the public needs access to all the facts

Politics should be about more than emotion and that is why voters have to be fully informed, writes Willie O'Dea

Murdered prison officer Brian Stack
Murdered prison officer Brian Stack

Willie O'Dea

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Cambridge Analytica exposé was watching the company accuse journalists of entrapping them.

Cambridge Analytica moaned about how an undercover journalist had used hidden cameras and microphones to record them telling him how to use hidden cameras and microphones to record and compromise others.

Oh, the irony.

One of those recordings showed a senior executive telling the undercover journalist, posing as a Sri Lankan politician, that voting is not about facts, only emotions.

Wrong. What he described was not how voting works now, but how he wants it to work.

Remove the respect for facts from any election process and you give the unscrupulous the facility to manipulate it. Just in the same way as you are guaranteed an easy win when you stop your rivals from being heard. Something we saw happening recently in Russia.

Without doubt, there is an emotional aspect to voting. People vote for the candidates they like, respect and trust. But they apply other criteria too.

They vote for those whose outlook and opinions accord with their own. The way they decide this is by listening to and comparing what candidates say. They also do it by discussing issues with family and friends. This is why facts matter.

It is why those of us who believe in the democratic process must ensure public access to facts, all the facts.

This is done in large part by candidates and parties reaching out directly to voters. Some of that happens online, but most of it still, happily, happens face-to-face.

It is also achieved by having a vibrant and independent broadcast, print and electronic media. A media that is ready and equipped to call out politicians when they make spurious claims or make bogus accusations.

It is not a perfect system. We know that not every TV or radio show, or newspaper gets the balance precisely right every time. But, we also know that they still offer a transparency and answerability that social media platforms do not.

It is why a fair and independent news media is vital for our democracy. Undermine trust and confidence in the news media and you are well on the way to undermining democracy itself. It is why the first target of the dictator and the despot is the printing press.

The same is true in the online world. You do not have to look too hard to find those looking to belittle what they label the MSM, the mainstream media, and those working in it.

It is why we see the rise of fake news sites and posts. It is why we see as many ad hominem attacks on journalists as we see against politicians. There is no shortage of posts across the social media platforms claiming to tell you "what the MSM do not want you to know".

They are not just looking to pass off what is fake and untrue as real, their aim is far more shameful. It is to undermine that which is real. Their aim is to undermine confidence and belief in all news. It is a scorched earth policy.

This is not just something happening somewhere far away, it is something we see here. Indeed, it is something we saw happen while the Cambridge Analytica story was breaking.

Last Sunday night, a fake Twitter account, mocked up to resemble the Government's official MerrionStreet account, posted a tweet that purported to respond to comments made in this paper by the son of Brian Stack, the prison officer murdered by the Provos.

The comments were vile and offensive. Yet that tweet was retweeted by a Sinn Fein Senator. She went further. Though challenged on it by Austin Stack and others, she made no move to delete it.

At some point overnight, and before Sinn Fein decided to impose its one-size-fits-all three-month suspension on the senator, her offending retweet and subsequent comments disappeared offline. As, remarkably, did the original fake account.

Social media is a powerful campaigning tool. But it is just that - a tool. It is one of many such tools available. The siren voices of the consultants who urge us to reject all other tools in its favour should be ignored.

We should instead listen to the calmer and reasoned voices, particularly that of the World Wide Web's creator, Sir Tim Berners Lee, who urge us all to care more about our online data.

This means the Government giving personal data the protections it needs - and backing Fianna Fail's Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill, published last year.

  • Willie O'Dea is a Fianna Fail TD representing Limerick City

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