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Dublin: 11 °C Wednesday 22 October, 2014

Lisa McInerney: Senator’s ‘frape’ gaffe signals that panic – not reason – rules social media debate

Fidelma Healy-Eames and Eamonn Coghlan were “given an important task that deserved research and clarity of delivery – instead we got ludicrous schemes and half-remembered gossip”.

Lisa McInerney

I’M THE SECOND eldest grandchild in a large family.

As such I’ve got a Facebook newsfeed inundated with the kind of things I find tiresome, but my younger relatives find gut-bustingly entertaining.

Like Victor Meldrew at a Lil Wayne concert, my Facebook visits tend to be characterised by bewilderment and only occasionally restrained rage.

The ‘frape’ is, of course, a near permanent feature. They’re not usually hard to spot, these would-be-wily impersonations. A sudden announcement of complete disregard for personal hygiene. An endorsement of deviant sexual practises. Something to do with farts. Even if old age hadn’t brutally done away with my sense of humour, I’d think them tedious: familiarity breeds contempt.

The thing is, you don’t have to be a digital native to know what ‘fraping’ is. Hey, you don’t even have to have a Facebook account; all you have to do – if you’ve heard this confusing portmanteau and want to know what it means – is ask someone. Any teenager will be able to tell you. Or you could google it; the Urban Dictionary pops right up.

The first reaction one might reasonably have on watching Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames wildly misinterpret the word ‘frape’ (and, for that matter, the word ‘rape’) is that perhaps Fidelma Healy-Eames is not a digital native, or even a digital day-tripper, and perhaps we should take her slip-up as an example of the middle-aged confusion that defines many Irish parents’ relationship with social media.

That Healy-Eames got the term so wrong – and made it sound much more sinister than the practical joke it is – could be interpreted as an opportunity to educate those not yet adept at using social media, just another kink that needs to be ironed out so we can return this commotion to the mouth of The Simpsons’ Helen Lovejoy, who’s no doubt wondering who swiped her soundbites.

“Ill-prepared nonsense”

But that would be rather generous. Fidelma Healy-Eames isn’t simply an out-of-touch Irish Mammy confounded by technical lexicon that hints at crimes far greater than mere vulgarity. Fidelma Healy-Eames is a senator, a well-paid, well-resourced public servant who was tasked with preparing a coherent statement about cyberbullying in Ireland.

The ‘frape’ mistranslation was only one gaffe in a five minute speech made up almost entirely of ill-prepared nonsense. “I heard…” she confided at one stage, “… that [sexting] is a criminal offence”. One would have thought that senators making presentations about a matter they’re telling us is of the utmost importance might have brought more to the table than vague recollections of issues of hazy portent.

Making his statement on the same day of the committee hearing, and faring just as atrociously, was Eamonn Coghlan, who wondered if passport numbers, IP addresses and credit card details couldn’t be all sewn together so that people who wished to make derogatory statements online would have to pay for the privilege.

What exactly were the senators’ orders here? Were they invited to address the committee only ten minutes before, plucked from the hall outside and thrust blinking into the spotlight without so much as a snappy brief on which to prop their ignorance, because surely that would be the only excuse for this kind of embarrassing performance. Such dithering speeches confirm nothing but contempt for their remit; this was an important task, and it deserved research and clarity of delivery. Instead, we got ludicrous schemes and half-remembered gossip.

“Cyberbullying issue deserves thoughtful debate”

This is supposed to be about the welfare of our own people, with special significance given to the welfare of kids and teenagers who are wide to social media, but not yet wide to the motivations of those using it.

Cyberbullying is a problem, one most of us don’t wish to play down. It deserves thoughtful debate. The internet isn’t just a helpful tool; it’s a major
constituent of modern life. In fact, much of the problem with bullying behaviour online can be attributed to the same ignorance as displayed by both senators: people believe that the internet is lawless, repercussion-free, and that online access equates to a licence to act with anonymity and impunity, pitching missiles at the faceless because what your conscience don’t know can’t hurt it.

Much bullying behaviour is linked to this brand of immense stupidity; how many Irish fourteen-year-olds have sent death threats to tweeters who don’t share their love of petulant moppet Justin Bieber?

Imposing sanctions on the use of the internet might seem like the quickest, easiest way to stop online harassment, but Canute himself would have better luck. And one would wonder if Coghlan and Healy-Eames aren’t just reacting with blind panic at the thought of this rampaging digital behemoth chewing up our children, if it wasn’t so obvious that even blind panic would constitute more effort than their recent discharge of hogwash. Is this how we’re intending to safeguard the welfare of our citizens? Lock down communication rather than tackling the desire to harm others or the inability to battle through it?

“Lack of desire to engage”

Is locking down communication the intent, because silencing dissent is far more pleasant to those in power than working with the plebeians to end their grousing? Is this lack of desire to engage with the issue a symptom of something far more worrying than digital naivety? Is this debate not so much about online safety as it is about buffering our political class from the bitter disappointment and anger that characterises their people?

As Healy-Eames and Coghlan were entertaining the committee with their meanderings, their party colleague Senator Catherine Noone was speaking in Brussels on the topic of a responsible internet, and summed up her thoughts with the statement that “individual education and empowerment will always be a far more effective tool than centralised policing”.

What a pity that this more sensible view wasn’t shared by her counterparts. What a pity that they hadn’t conferred with her beforehand, seeing as they were all focused on the same core issue. There is such a large difference between ignorance and wilful ignorance. The first can be remedied. The second points to bigger problems.

Read previous columns on TheJournal.ie by Lisa McInerney >

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