The Irish Twitterati are killing themselves with laughter after an indifferent to extremely poor performance by a Joint Committee of the Oireachtas tasked with looking at social media this morning. But in fact, unlike Stormont’s more self indulgent performance (who have no powers in this regard), the lack of understanding amongst TDs and Senators (who do) is a matter for real concern.
There were a few points of common sense. Anne Phelan, a Labour TD from Kilkenny (and sadly probably one of those most likely for the revolving door) nailed it when she noted that if politicians as a class survived the ridicule of Punch Magazine in the 18th Century: they’ll likely survive Facebook and Twitter.
I am afraid to say that much of the debate sounded suspiciously like wounded egos speaking. Not that dissimilar to Stormont, in fact. There are problems, of course, with the net. One of them is that it is very easy for political enemies to both organise and then hide themselves from established authorities.
— Barry (@Wexford_tweeter) March 6, 2013
It’s the cousinate versus the sultanate as John Pollock puts it in his study of post revolutionary Libya for Technology Review. No amount of parliamentary conversation is going to do away with the new kind of guerrilla warfare that we saw in the Bogus Tweet episode.
There is also the problem of exagerated claims of internet excess. Most notably from Senator Fedelma Healey Eames:
…until we have a system minister, similar to what we have with the Press Ombudsman, for the print media and the broadcast media, we need some type of set of guidelines. We need some type of report, place to report it to. We do need to know that there’s sanctions there.
Funny? Well perhaps not as much as the Frape comment she’s now being ripped for all over the Irish twitterverse. But it’s just one demonstration of what happens as people inside one institution become paranoid whilst the world outside is being rewired from channels into networks.
Some in the Irish parliament still imagine there is someone they can report bad people on the internet to.
Fergal Crehan in his excellent and comprehensive legal submission makes a similar point to one often made by David Allen Green in England. That is that the law already exists, and it can be used. Yet, in the committee, there was not one reference to Lord McAlpine’s innovative use of the law to effectively sue or settle with thousands of Tweeters.
Indeed in the analogue debate in Northern Ireland it fell to the unlikely figure of Jim Allister to remind his fellow parliamentarians that the law does indeed have teeth and passing worthy motions is secondary to making sure the judicial system as it stands works as smoothly and effectively as it can be made to.
Another thing about information online is its sheer abundance. To a very large extent this changes the moral and value proposition of information and the propagation of opinion.
Fergal quotes Tamiz v Google, where the English Court of Appeal held that:
“it is highly improbable that any significant number of readers will have accessed the comments after that time and prior to removal of the entire blog. It follows, as the judge clearly had in mind, that any damage to the appellant’s reputation arising out of continued publication of the comments during that period will have been trivial; and in those circumstances the judge was right to consider that “the game would not be worth the candle”
Though the reasoning in this case and its antecedents has not been explicitly approved in an Irish judgement, it has persuasive authority. In any case, where the defendant in such a case is a private individual, perhaps not even an adult, simple cost considerations will discourage many plaintiffs. Further, public figures may wish to reflect on which is a greater affront to their dignity, the words of an ill-informed teenager, or the publicity garnered by pursuing that teenager through the courts.
We hold our parliamentarians to higher account that tweeters because we expect them to run the country. In the final case most key decisions still revert to them. Nothing much has changed in this regard, except the world outside the chamber is being profoundly changed.
The problem is that the narratives that surround these decisions can no longer be mediated by people the parlimentarian or minister knows (who may, for instance, be relied upon to pull an awkward story or two from time to time).
The truth is that our cultural nervous system is being ripped out and rewired. The arbitrary authority that Appleyard sees (£) as crucial to the transmission of western culture is daily being contested.
Adriana believes that the “asymmetric ownership of information is breaking down” and the individual, rather than the group is becoming their own arbiter of their own cultural choices. Or in Tom Loosemore’s more New Labourish terms, “interpretation no longer sits in the hands of the few, but in the hands of the many”.
This has profound implications for society, and not all of them good. But it is far from inevitable, as Kamm argues, that it is “changing how politics is conducted – overwhelmingly for the worse”.
The Irish political system is under assault from several angles at once. The worst of them is a broad cynicism which to be truthful is springing from seeds that it planted itself. But cynicism did not just float up the Liffey on the inflowing tide of social media. It’s been inherent in dozens of decisions both taken (and not taken) over the years.
Our parliamentarians need to understand the nature of this political challenge and to find ways not just to live with it but to evolve systems that allow them to engage with and narrow the gap between the electors and the elected. Unfortunately, there are no pro forma answers for how that can be done.
But keep calm and carry on, might be a decent start…