Our perception is that the public debate is plagued by bitterness, anger and recrimination; people no longer seem to disagree pleasantly, so instead of listening to the pros and cons of an issue, there are laughing emojis or sarcastic criticisms of the genuine opinions of others.
In a week which saw the appalling murder of England MP David Amess, threats against our own MPs and reports of up to ten journalists targeted with sinister messages, the spotlight has been on companies social media.
As always, they are the big bad wolf.
In the United States, Frances Haugen worked for Facebook but copied thousands of internal documents before leaving, and as a whistleblower, she says Facebook products harm children, fuel division and weaken democracy. She says, for example, that in a Facebook poll, 32% of teenage girls who felt bad about themselves said Instagram made them feel worse.
But Facebook hid it from us.
Haugen cites other data that led her to accuse Facebook of “betrayal of democracy” and of being “dangerous.”
Facebook, of course, fought back; but it all seems a far cry from the original idea Mark Zuckerberg and his classmates had (less than 20 years ago) of connecting people in a positive social network to share news and entertainment.
Indeed, if you are one of the two billion monthly users worldwide, the plethora of family photos, bible verses, motivational texts, music videos and the rest can help make the world a better place.
But, as always, once the darker elements of humanity see an opportunity for the more seedy side of life, they seize it.
It hasn’t been a good week for Twitter either. During a debate in the House of Lords, Baroness Fox, former MEP Claire Fox warned their Lordships that public figures “too often take Twitter for public opinion”.
Indeed, how many times has it been said that Twitter is sometimes a sewer, used by many to spit bile, whether for fun or to bring down opponents. I wonder, however, if it’s too easy to blame Twitter.
Is it a sewer in itself, or is it rather a wake-up call by pulling the curtain down on the real sewer, on society itself?
We also need to remember that Twitter in particular, and to some extent Facebook, is widely used by older people and many of our younger generations prefer TikTok or Instagram and don’t want to engage in issues that many see as important. important public interest. .
Who can blame them, but it is worrying that the citizens of tomorrow are so put off by the problems.
These issues were once the almost exclusive domain of the mainstream media, mainly newspapers and broadcasters.
The Lords’ Debate to which Claire Fox contributed focused on a Westminster report titled ‘Breaking News: The Future of British Journalism’ and there is concern about how our media is adapting to the rapidly changing world of communications.
There is no doubt that social media, especially Twitter, is often instrumentalized by supporters of extreme views using disinformation to legitimize their often dangerous agenda.
It was evident this week, with an attack on our former colleague Rodney Edwards who for a few weeks in the Sunday Independent highlighted the grim work of extreme ‘anti-vaccines’ in parts of Ireland.
Last Sunday, in the Northern Ireland Journal’s first edition, he revealed that the PSNI was investigating the intimidating behavior of anti-vaccines towards politicians with grim references to those who support vaccination causing “genocide” and “supporting crimes against humanity”. SDLP Minister Nicola Mallon had her office delivered a “letter of responsibility” accusing her of harming children by approving the coronavirus vaccine.
In the Assembly this week, a number of MPs recounted the personal abuse they suffered, particularly distasteful during the week of the murder of an MP.
If you think this is the business of some extremely crazed fundamentalist rednecks in parts of the United States, remember these far-right people are marching among us here in Ireland.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, a debate about how people with genuine concerns or reservations about the vaccine was lost. This is the nature of public discourse.
For his courageous journalism which brought such extremism into the public arena, Rodney has suffered extensive social media abuse.
“Have eyes in the back of your head because you’re going to need them,” said an anonymous user. It was one of many and Rodney himself tweeted on Monday: âHundreds of nasty posts today from those who are anti-vaxx, anti-lockdown, anti-media. Many of them threatening. I have always said that government decisions should be challenged by journalists. But so do those who spread dangerous falsehoods and publish threats like this. ”
Rightly, the police forces on both sides of the border are now investigating and the Chief Constable of the PSNI takes a personal interest.
So he should; and indeed we all should. We also have to remember that social media is just a tool, it is used by people.
I often find it frustrating that many people who engage in confirmation bias and agree to something uncontrolled and unregulated on social media are sometimes the first to criticize mainstream media.
It is the responsibility of social media companies to prevent this shocking, dangerous and unacceptable use of their communication vehicle in this way, and they are not doing enough.
Social media have an important role to play in disseminating news and information, stimulating debate and connecting people; but big companies need to pull themselves together instead, as Frances Haugen says, of putting their own interests, including making more money, ahead of the interests of what is good for society.
In an age when our media are under fire from criticism, it is also incumbent on mainstream journalism to be responsible and provide a public service to a range of opinions. There is a fine line between vigorous debate and stoking division and there are journalists who cross that line.
I feel very privileged to be able to write a column expressing my perspective on issues, and I am particularly convinced that we should hold those who hold authority to account and give a voice to those who do not. elsewhere, I would like to stress that it is ‘how I see it’; So I try to express my opinions to sort out the issues and I have to respect people who disagree with me, even strongly.
I am “old school” and remember when the newspapers had a very clear line between news and opinion.
But now those lines are blurry, and sometimes there are journalists who seem to think it’s their job to promote a program, often using social media ironically, to do so. And the cult of the attention-seeking journalist’s personality, using social media to promote himself is contrary to the purpose of his office
Remember, they are very much in the minority, so media detractors shouldn’t hit all journalists with the negative brush alone.
Media pluralism is vital, space and respect for all opinions is needed, and public discourse needs to be cleaned up. Noise from dangerous extremists should never become the norm.