Coming to terms with the Internet will not entail switching it off, but facing and evaluating fears

Gavan Titley has it about right. Moral panic is about the best way to describe the latest outbreak of social media bashing in the Republic. The first political party in the south to take to the business of engaging online was Labour, as this report from Damien Mulley outlines. The first Twitter storm I witnessed was a spectacular one when Fianna Fail used Joe Rospers as blogger bait, and got burned for their efforts.

Much of the criticism we’ve seen before, and most of it ignores the fact that some Irish politicians are just as grumpy about mainstream media as they are about the unclean multitudes of social media types. Although it seems that if you are in opposition and you have no machine and under resourced, you can – if you are Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan – turn it to your advantage:

“Each election that comes along, if they hadn’t recognised it in the last election they are going to be even more out of touch in the next election and then they will rue the day.

“In my own case, I recruited 75pc of my canvassers through Facebook (I wasn’t active on Twitter at that stage). I did a tour of my constituency and would spend two to three nights in every town and before I’d arrive I would message friends telling them I’d be in the area and would they come out to help me.

“The most successful one was Carrick-on-Shannon, when I had 28 people turn up at the Landmark Hotel who I’d never met before just waiting and very keen to go out and canvass for me.”

The underlying problem is well described by Eilis O’Hanlon in the Sindo:

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte was flogging the same message last week in an interview with the Irish Times as he criticised the media for its “all-pervasive negativity” which was “not helping the mood of a people that is in distress and difficulty. I don’t think the media give a damn,” he added, “about where this is going to bring politics.”

Unlike, say, making a series of promises before an election which were promptly dumped the day after? That enhances the reputation of politics, does it?

I’ll tell him who doesn’t give a damn about the negativity of the media – every politician in history when it was his rivals who were getting it in the neck.

Pat Rabbitte and all his colleagues didn’t care two hoots when it was Fianna Fail that was on the receiving end. In fact, they surfed a ride to power on the back of that wave of discontent. Now suddenly they want to shut off the tap for no other reason than that they’re now the ones being held to account.

Rabbitte may couch his resentment in some fine-sounding words about the damage being done to Irish democracy, but behind the flowery rhetoric the real message is about control.

That’s a harsh (and possibly unfair) lesson for politicians who when elected to office must gain control and use it well. The world is being rewired in strange and unpredictable ways. Venkatesh Rao, who writes for Forbes, notes:

The speed and completeness of our knowledge of global affairs has done more than expand our circle of concern. The potential of the Internet to enable new forms of collective action has also convinced us that we can act on those concerns in improved ways.

Unusually visible chaos, plus an authority vacuum, plus a perceived sense of greater control equal a deep restlessness.

It is a popular restlessness, not  just elitist hand-wringing. The latter is a permanent feature of world history; it is hard to find a period when the intellectual elites have not been animated by a sense of both crisis and opportunity.  This is not true of popular restlessness (which is different from popular unrest).

John Waters in the  latest of his generally restless musings bemoans his most recently discovered evils of the Internet, and writes:

A bullyboy media culture, which gives licence to anonymous agents to spew abuse and defamatory comments about others, can be profoundly restrictive of free speech, often amounting to a highly effective instrument of censorship.

In some instances, as we’ve recently had reason to observe, the effects of such commentary can be terminal. Free speech and democracy are far better served by a regulated system of commentary, which insists on basic civilities, foremost among which is that participants identify themselves before contributing.

He has a point. The reference to terminal consequences is a side reference to the suicide of Shane McEntee – who’d been Fine Gael Junior Minister at Agriculture – just before Christmas. It’s believed by many in the MSM and mainstream Irish politics that his death was ’caused’  by the loud criticism of the angriest of Ireland’s creepy new bosses in its social media collective. Na Gobshiteanna, peut-être?

It’s plausible enough. Dan O’Brien has written well on the parochial nature of Irish politics and politicians where manners and like-ability are of a higher currency than perhaps they should be for the nation’s own long term good.  And we do now, although it is better seen and understood far from those in the public gaze (who are simply expected to shoulder the burden) that at its worse the always on social media can contribute significantly to individual human tragedy.

The problem is poorly understood by politicians and some of our most senior and erudite commentators. It’s simply not the case that the internet is populated with ill grammared louts. Well actually, yes, it is.  Of course. But it is also beginning to describe new ways of developing authority and knowledge. You don’t get one without copious amounts of the other.

It introduces a new dimension to good old fashioned conversation that’s still ill-understood by those of us who’ve been working in the medium for the longest time. And at the heart of that is the hyperlink. It’s this that’s transformed the development and transmission of knowledge: that’s extended the human memory in a degree and on a scale we’ve simply never experienced before.

Watch a child before reading age play on a game like Cut the Rope and you’ll notice that linear narrative means little to them. The logic and the fun of the puzzle is everything. They bob up and down various silos, constantly moving and charting their own individual paths of learning, or at least to the extent that the game allows it. This is the world of the autonomous learner, and autonomous publics.

It’s a world full, in equal measures, of both danger and promise. It’s also a world where established authority – be it church, politics, or banking – is under constant criticism and challenge. Whether you describe it as ‘credit’, ‘belief’ or ‘credibility’ social provenance is a precious commodity in a world in which data and the capacity to read data is freer than it ever has been before. Especially for those cultural institutions charged with doing things in our name.

It’s as though we have to start over again (and again and again and again) to figure out how we might get back to shore. Those in power are almost universally fearful of a public gaze which is multiplying, intensifying and scariest of all, seemingly ungovernable. That fear is probably what needs to be listened to, though as Karen Thompson Walker suggests towards the end of her Ted presentation, it needs to be done carefully and with due attention to probable outcomes.

Sitting and twiddling thumbs (or billing people for having the temerity to send you readers/customers) is not an option.

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