Is it just me, or do other people feel like social media has too big of an influence these days? During the recent General Election campaign, I left a question box open on my Instagram story for over two weeks. For those of you not on Instagram - how I envy you. Don't start. It's a gateway drug. A question box allows any of my 13,000-plus followers to privately ask me a question, which I can then answer, and show both the question and answer to all my followers.
The rules for my Q&A were that it could be anything pertaining to the election or the process of voting. I consistently repeated that I would not be giving any of my own thoughts or opinions - I was trying to stick to facts. I also gave the caveat that when I didn't know the answer, I would reach out to political correspondent Gavan Reilly and communications expert Lorcan Nyhan.
After a few days, I had to look for a week-long extension on a deadline I had for the BBC, because I was getting so many questions and, unsurprisingly, I was crippled by my own lack of boundaries and ability to say no.
On top of my addiction to Instagram and my pronounced difficulties in knowing what is important and what is not, there was an added pressure. I felt a massive social obligation to my Instagram followers, because during the last two referendums, I was evangelical about getting people to register to vote.
In 2015 and 2019, I had people tagging me on photos on Instagram with their signed and stamped RFA2 forms, knowing I would be proud and delighted that they were registering.
Before I started the Q&A, 12 people messaged me and asked, "What is this election about - I know it's not abortion or gay marriage, what is this one about?" I was shocked - how could anyone not know the difference between a general election and a referendum?
I was horrified at our educational system and took a long jump on to my high horse - getting launched in anger at a friend over lunch. She chewed on her salad leaves while a vein pulsed in my neck. When I stopped to take a breath, she said to me: "Do you know who Maura, Demi, Connagh and Connor are?" I looked at her, trying to work out if she had moved house, and therefore constituency, and had some Independents in her area I hadn't come across. I shook my head.
"Stefanie, you follow politics like most people our age follow Love Island. You haven't a clue about pop culture - each to their own."
"Yeah, but..." I started.
"No! Politics is boring, and nothing ever changes anyway."
I spent the next hour lecturing her, which I'm not proud of. I tried to explain that politics is the original Love Island. The De Valera/Collins split is way juicier than anything Amber and Greg ever did. The notion of a coalition with SF and another party would make our country the Love Island island, and would cause tears of sorrow and joy at volumes the Nielsen index could barely dream of.
Some of the questions coming into my Q&A box were profound, inspired, sensible, and showed a real sense of stewardship from an electorate that really wanted to know but didn't know where to ask. Others were beyond alarming. Too-many-people-to-be-comfortable-with asked me, "Just tell me who to vote for".The idea that voters would allow a 'social influencer' or a 'celebrity' tell them who to vote for is an indictment of the power of social media.
Every day, I had upwards of 6,000 people viewing my answers and, I imagine, taking what I was saying as fact. This isn't a problem because they were facts, but what if they hadn't been?
Have we got to a point now where people aren't just influenced in what smoothies, clothes and nail-varnish colours to wear? Have we outsourced our discernment to people who have large followings? It's pretty dangerous.
I work in television and write TV shows, and yet if I told you what to watch on TV for the next five years, you wouldn't be long rolling your eyes at my tastes and recommendations.
The only way to truly accept an election result is to be reassured that it has been democratic, and unless everyone has a say, it's not truly a representation of the whole country.
That's why I opened the question box - I wanted to remove any barrier to engaging in politics. I believe that not voting is like getting into a taxi and not saying anything. But I wonder if that's actually safer than getting into a taxi and having some social-media-authority-on-absolutely-nothing instruct the driver where to take you.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine