Irish Examiner view: Social media has become a conduit for dishonesty and hate

Irish Examiner view: Social media has become a conduit for dishonesty and hate

Two weeks ago, when Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg told US President Donald Trump that he could say whatever he liked on the platform, Mr Zuckerberg assumed a role and power utterly inamicable to democracy.

The issue came to a head after Mr Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” drum beating was hidden with a warning by Twitter. Mr Zuckerberg allowed it to stand, divorcing himself from any consequences.

Mr Zuckerberg’s shout-away indulgence came in defiance of civil rights organisations, civic leaders, and politicians of all hues.

Facebook’s commercial interests prevailed. Any sense that a moral obligation should convince him to use his great power positively was unequal to the challenge. To their credit, some of his staff were so uneasy with the decision that they left very comfortable jobs.

Nevertheless, the credit the decision will win for Mr Zuckerberg should Mr Trump be re-elected will make the great power wielded by the old-style press baron of the age — Rupert Murdoch — seem incidental.

The decision, one that allows Mr Trump to lie, divide, and provoke racism without check, will be decisive in November’s election.

Should Mr Trump and the malign interests he represents use Facebook to eviscerate Joe Biden as thoroughly as he did an asleep-at-the-keyboard Hilary Clinton in 2016, then the future looks grim. And all because the world’s democracies turn a blind eye to Facebook’s hidden influence on supposed democracies.

Tempting as it is to hope that this has little enough relevance in our calm, polite four green fields, that is no longer possible, nor has it been for some time.

We do not have to contend with a raging, amoral, wannabe demagog, but there are Irish equivalents, albeit of a lower calibre. There is an Irish cohort, masked and virulent, on Facebook that is toxic.

The announcement that a deal to form a government had been reached provoked a tsunami of bile, disinformation, and unconcealed hatred. It showed an unhealthy anger, for those who express it and those who bear its brunt.

It also showed a deep misunderstanding, willful or otherwise, of the mechanics of our democracy.

This view is not offered because of a difference of opinions or a different set of political values, but rather because
Facebook facilitates the spread of gross inaccuracies, organised dishonesty, and unfounded allegations, all of which weaken democracy.

This stirs anger which finds an outlet when it is time to vote. As government formation is not certain, we may have another election and tiny margins will make huge differences. 

hat contribution to those tiny margins will the hate fests on Facebook make?

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) yesterday warned that newspapers and broadcast media need “prompt action” by the next government to survive.

A promise to establish a commission on the future of the media is “long overdue”, the NUJ said. It is easy to dismiss this argument as self-serving — it is but very much on a secondary level — but unless we invest in organisations that always try to serve and tell the truth, then Mr Zuckerberg’s moral-free imperialism and Mr Trump’s hateful spewing will be normalised.

That truly would be a return to the dark ages.

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