I have received death threats. I have received threats that my daughter will be raped. These have come from supporters of a political party. I have not gone to the gardaí about these threats. That suggests that I am probably a liar and am manufacturing these threats and blaming a political party because I’m hopelessly biased against them.
So it goes in the parallel universe of social media.
The above statements and inferences appeared in a blog by an academic and writer a few years back. I just discovered the blog 10 days ago and contacted the blogger.
His name is Jude Collins. He is a retired university lecturer and prominent Sinn Féin supporter in which guise he writes columns and frequently contributes to radio and TV. His blog attracts thousands of like minds — up to 25,000 for the 'most-read posts'. The blog posting that disseminated lies about me was entitled ‘Michael Clifford and the Social Media’.
After laying out these inventions, which Mr Collins said I had related on an RTÉ radio programme, he wrote the following:
“What the conventional media are discovering is the power of the social media. The power Michael wields through his column is balanced by the power wielded by the social media, through the keyboards of all the hitherto-voiceless people out there. That I think is good. Where it stops being good is when the social media becomes the messenger for threats of violence. That’s why I think Michael should tell us more about the threats, how he knows they come from Sinn Féin and what he has done or plans to do about them.”
I told Mr Collins that nobody ever threatened my life, not to mind a Shinner. I don’t have a daughter but if I did I would be very angry at anybody writing falsities about threats of rape. I never said any of the things which he had attributed to me. On hearing this, Mr Collins was apologetic and said he’d check it up to see where he went wrong and take down the post.
I pointed out to him that anybody reading his blog and the posted responses which agreed with it would come to the conclusion that I, who make my living as a journalist, is a liar who would manufacture threats of rape just to paint Sinn Féin black.
This brought Mr Collins onto his pet subject — the media is biased against so-called Republicans. We went around in circles with that chestnut for a while.
Mr Collins’ assertion that social media can balance any alleged power wielded by those who work in the media is well-made. The democratisation of debate in this regard is a hugely positive feature of public life today.
For instance, I wrote a column a few months ago about the Green party which was, in some respects, critical. A number of party members, including public representatives, disagreed and challenged me about the piece on Twitter.
Some challenged it vehemently and suggested I had been unfair. All of this is positive in terms of debate and holds the mainstream media to account in a manner that wasn’t previously the case. This is social media operating at its best.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, that experience is more exception than rule.
The far more common occurrence is abuse and denigration. Anybody who operates in any facet of public life will be aware of that. Women, in particular, get targeted in this manner, often viciously.
When it comes to challenging the mainstream media there is another aspect to this culture, one that has ramifications way beyond personal abuse or neutralising debate.
Increasingly in some quarters of politics, social media is used to attempt to systemically discredit the media. This is designed to encourage the public to ignore anything negative that appears in the media about a particular politician or party.
Don’t believe what is broadcast, or what you read, because it is the product of irredeemable bias. Ignore the facts, concentrate on the deep flaws of the messenger, which render the facts irrelevant.
That is the tactic deployed and it is reaping success in undermining the media’s role in holding power to account.
The obvious example in this respect is Donald Trump. He is a master at crying “fake news” about anything that paints him in a negative light, irrespective of the facts. His success is evidenced by his huge following which has been conditioned to view any negative coverage of him as really a reflection on the media peddling “alternative facts”.
This tactic is now increasingly being deployed in Britain by Boris Johnson’s 'brain', Dominic Cummings.
Every political party and politician believes at some point that they don’t get a fair shake in the media.
But there is copious evidence that Jude Collins’ assertion that the mainstream media is constitutionally biased against Sinn Féin is widely shared by many, if not most, within the party.
Mr Collins gave to me the example of media bias in how Martin McGuinness was questioned about past IRA murders when he ran for president in 2011.
But, I said, other candidates in that election were quizzed extensively about past personal conduct and financial matters. Oh, says Jude, that’s different.
It’s always different, it would appear, when it comes to perceptions among the Shinners of media bias.
Any coverage that touches on the party’s past, culture, structures or extraordinary wealth is deemed unacceptable and actually a product of this bias. On social media, coverage of these issues is presented as examples of how “the media” has it in for the party. This sentiment is then amplified exponentially in the echo chamber of social media.
In such a milieu it would be perfectly believable that a journalist would have no compunction in manufacturing a threat of rape against his daughter in order to portray the Shinners as thugs. Of course he would. Don’t the media “hate” Sinn Féin?
The tactic is highly effective. It operates organically within the echo chamber.
There is nobody in head-office directing it. And, as with Trump’s base accepting the concept of “fake news”, so also many supporters of Sinn Féin are genuinely convinced of media bias. That in turn provides the perfect excuse to discredit any scrutiny that reflects negatively on the party.
The media is, like every other institution, full of flaws and imperfections.
Currently, the traditional model is under severe pressure and this pressure can manifest itself in different ways. But, in its basic form, the media is essential to the operation of a democracy. Right now, attempts to undermine that function are increasingly in vogue across the world.
Sinn Féin has a major role to play in the future of politics on this island. It has in its ranks some serious politicians committed to social justice. The party has come a long way in the last 20 years. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.