Questions around use of social media floating on online cloud

Barry Walsh

We have blindly embraced social media without fully knowing how to handle it and the outing of Barry Walsh’s online behaviour has proven that, writes Elaine Loughlin.

As one commentator put it, the new world of social media has become a big toilet wall in which people can write all sorts of abuse.

But such networks are not like slurs on slabs of concrete in a cubicle frequented by a handful of people before the offending comments are painted over, they act as a permanent record of statements and abuse which can be searched and retrieved at any date in the future.

As political campaigning moves from posters on lamp-posts to slick messaging on Facebook and constant updates through Twitter, the grey area between private and public has become even more unclear. As one senior Fianna Fáil party official put it: “We have not got to grips with social media, we use it but maybe we don’t quite know how to use it.”

While online platforms are seen as a valuable tool to communicate with voters, political parties and individual politicians and indeed members of political organisations have yet to identify a clear cut set of rules like exists when dealing with traditional media. Online interactions span from Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams who avidly and regularly tweets updates on his rubber ducky and teddy bear, to Labour TD Wille Penrose, who has yet to tweet.

With online media likely to play an even greater role in politics — just take a look at what is happening under President Donald Trump’s rule in the US — questions must be asked and answered around how those in the public eye treat new forums.

Is it acceptable to vent fury, express controversial or even offensive opinions, or engage in sustained debate as an elected representative or member of a political party? Are the rules different for high ranking or high profile members?

Mr Walsh, for example, has been a senior member of Fine Gael for years. He was president of Young Fine Gael between 2007 and 2010, he acted as the party’s campaign director in the Dublin Bay North constituency during last year’s general election and worked for Lucinda Creighton when she was a serving Fine Gael TD. Can such an involved member of a political party isolate their personal comments from that of their organisation?

Sarah Kieran, a partner in Media Lawyer Solicitors, maintains that once someone has a “public facing role” in a company or organisation their comments are likely to be interpreted as associated with the group.

She said employers, organisations and groups have a responsibility to lay down a clear policy around the use of social media by their workers, representatives or members and if these rules are broken people should be disciplined.

But the questions go further than politics. Can a journalist give their opinion on current affairs, does a teacher still represent their school while posting holiday snaps cocktail in hand, or can the chair of a GAA club tweet in a personal capacity to slam a rival team?

These questions still float in the online cloud.

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