FERGUS FINLAY: Sadly, abuse by the anonymous is the name of the game on Twitter

I STARTED taking Twitter seriously 579 days ago. I know that because Twitter keeps records.

Everything I’ve sent is stored and is available at the touch of a button to anyone. It’s even available on their mobile phones.

I’m not as prolific as many — in 579 days, I’ve sent out 371 tweets, which is four a week, on average. Some of the people I follow send a tweet every five minutes. I’ll send a message with a link to each column I write, to start a discussion.

Or, I’ll tweet about an issue that seems urgent. Or, occasionally, I’ll send something for fun.

So that makes me a tweeter, or twitterer, or whatever the appropriate term. Or, maybe — and there are many people who would agree with this — just a twit.

Anyway, Twitter is an amazing medium. So is Facebook, though in a different, less urgent way.

What is absolutely astonishing about Twitter is its immediacy, like real-time communication. If someone re-tweets something you’ve sent, that will happen inside three or four minutes. If you want to see how people are reacting to an ongoing discussion on television, you can follow what they say on Twitter.

It’s distorted, of course. The people who live on Twitter aren’t a true representation of the population, so it would be a serious mistake to be over-influenced by what goes on there. But that doesn’t rob it of its fascination.

I also follow people on Twitter — 297 of them, the last time I looked — and I have only one rule about that.

I don’t have to like them, or agree with them — I have only ‘unfollowed’ or blocked two or three people, because of the unpleasantness and personal nature of their views. I have been struck by how angry people can get on Twitter — it’s like they’re shouting at you, sometimes — but I guess that’s life.

But I won’t follow anyone anonymous. If people are cross and angry, and want to get it off their chests, that’s fine. But people who only want to offer abuse, and only want to do it under the cloak of anonymity, have no right to be tolerated.

In fact, if there was one ‘regulatory’ measure that I would insist on, it would be that everyone has to sign their name to everything they write — on Twitter, on Facebook, and on the web.

I suspect, in a way, that’s what is getting Pat Rabbitte down. When he talks about the barrage of negativity in the media, and its corrosive effect on politics and on public discourse, I doubt very much if he’s referring to the political commentators with whom he disagrees.

Throughout his career, he’s been more than able to fight his own corner in any form of political discourse.

But there is no possibility of conducting any kind of discourse on social media when so many of its participants hide behind false names, and indulge in so much personal abuse. That is the single greatest thing that makes social media so corrosive, and the thing that undermines its value.

In one respect, I disagree with Pat Rabbitte.

Although I’ve always been partisan in my personal politics — and, I hope, open about that — I’ve also always believed that politics, by and large, gets the media it deserves. Our Government is getting a hard time at present precisely because so many people invested a huge amount of hope in it, and that hope has yet to be realised.

It may be realised in time and, if it is, perceptions may change. But they’re not delivering what people expected of them. They have broken promises. No doubt, they were promises made in good faith, and, no doubt, they weren’t broken casually or lightly.

But they were broken, and the media has a right and a duty to report and comment on that.

But a number of things have changed about the media since I was active in politics — and, indeed, since Pat Rabbitte started in politics.

There is a much wider proliferation of media in recent years — more radio stations, for example, and much more frequent deadlines. Media coverage tends to be more personality-based than it used to be, and less interested in nuance.

And, of course, social media, with its rapid-fire immediacy, plays a bigger role every day.

It can be difficult, sometimes impossible, for politics to keep up with the demands of all this.

But what nobody can be expected to cope with is the amount of personal abuse that the availability of media allows. In politics, by and large, people do their best. That doesn’t mean they get it right, and it doesn’t mean they should be immune from criticism.

But the tragedy that befell Shane McEntee, and his family, appears to be related to far more than reasonable political criticism. And I have no doubt that the current trend has the potential to plunge more people into personal despair.

As an example (and I’m not trying to personalise this unnecessarily), I wrote something a couple of months ago about child benefit. That led to a “conversation” on one website — a website supposedly devoted to politics and current affairs. It describes itself as having “one of the most engaged, respected and influential politics and current affairs communities”.

It explicitly takes no responsibility for what people in that “community” say, but it does ask them not to say or do illegal things.

The “conversation” that followed my article ran to 15 pages or so.

A few of the contributors discussed the ideas in the article — in positive and negative terms. The vast majority concentrated on dishing out personal abuse. More than 90% of the contributors — and all the abusers — used pseudonyms to hide their identity.

You can search any of our politicians’ names on that website and find far worse than what was written about my article. How anyone can seriously believe that approach to political discourse adds any value to our notion of democracy is beyond me.

Naturally, the media, in general, has taken great exception to Pat Rabbitte’s remarks, as if he was advocating some kind of totalitarianism or censorship.

I doubt if he was suggesting anything of the kind.

Social media, and the sort of urgent and fast-paced commentary it promotes, is here to stay. What’s more, it’s making a huge contribution.

But it needs exactly the same regulation, and to exactly the same degree, that its proponents demand of politics. Openness, transparency, accountability.

Democracy is about the free exchange of ideas. It’s about the freedom to disagree without fear, and to dissent in the open. It’s about the willingness to advocate, to argue, and to give and take criticism.

But personal abuse has nothing to do with democracy.

In fact, the cynicism and alienation it engenders will do far more damage to democracy than anything a politician might say.

In that sense, Pat Rabbitte is absolutely right.


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