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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 15 October, 2019
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Jack Chambers has taken some heat on social media, but public figures get criticised all the time

Columnist Julien Mercille writes that if we start policing the internet for online abuse we can say goodbye to freedom of speech.

Julien Mercille Associate professor, UCD

THE NEWLY-ELECTED 25-year old Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers has taken some heat on social media for his opposition to abortion and for declaring he would oppose a referendum on repealing the 8th amendment that bans abortion.

It didn’t take much time for some to denounce the “cyberbullying” of Chambers by an “unsocial media”.

But those accusations are in large part politically motivated: they reveal a political establishment trying to silence dissent.

First, to be clear, of course, political discussion and debate should not resort to name calling and personal attacks. If anything, they distract from the points that those who use them wish to make. And comments about a person’s looks usually mean that those complaining don’t have much to say anyway.

Criticism of government

Further, it is not surprising that social media has become a favourite site to express criticism of government officials. This happens in part because in our political system, there are few effective channels allowing citizens to voice their discontent.

Let’s explore the political dimension to the recent claims that Jack Chambers was bullied online.

First, looking at the actual evidence, where number of websites did a compilation of the “most abusive” tweets Chambers received. Granted, they’re not nice, but if this is bullying that should be outlawed, many Twitter users would become criminals!

Anybody active in the media will be familiar with such comments. I have myself been told to go back to my country as a foreigner, that I was just a dumb conspiracy theorist, along with a long list of comments about my looks.

Somebody even compared me to David McWilliams, triggering an online debate about whether this was bullying me or praising me! But the picture is clear: public figures get criticised all the time, and they almost never care.

Jack Chambers himself seems to agree, by reacting exactly as a mature politician would: “he is not letting any of it bother him” and focuses on more important things than comments about his hair. When asked how he handled the negative comments on social media, he replied: “I get on with my job. There are bigger issues to focus on… If you go on tracking what everyone is saying about you online, you would be forever distracting yourself from the proper business of politics.”

But why are journalists like the Irish Times’ Harry McGee writing articles denouncing with outrage the “torrent of abuse” against certain TDs like Chambers?

Negative commentary 

The answer is that it protects the main parties from criticism. Indeed, if journalists were truly opposed to negative commentary in the media, they would denounce immediately the overwhelmingly negative coverage against people like Paul Murphy TD who was accused of just about everything for challenging the water charges. They would also denounce the negative accusations against Sinn Féin, which has been linked to every vice and crime imaginable. And this applies whether we love or hate Sinn Féin and Paul Murphy, which is a separate issue.

Some are calling for stricter laws against bullying and its criminalisation. But this is often a slippery slope that leads straight into “Big Brother” policing of the internet by the government. And if that happens, we can all say goodbye to freedom of speech and dissent.

It is very easy to predict what would happen if the government started policing the internet to catch and arrest alleged “bullies”: it is overwhelmingly those who criticise government policy who would be arrested.

Indeed, would the government be arrested for “bullying” the population into accepting austerity and EU-IMF bailout for fear that “economic Armageddon” would strike Ireland, a claim that was repeated ad nauseam? Recall that 500 people committed suicide in this country because of austerity. And recall that over one million of our citizens now live under deprivation. And that homelessness has reached record levels.

Also, when the political class denies the right of women to simply have control over their own bodies, it is normal that some people will react to that. Those who wish to reduce the negative commentary on Twitter may want to criticise more strongly government policies that affect women negatively. If they do, they will get much praise on social media.

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin. Twitter: @JulienMercille. 

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About the author:

Julien Mercille  / Associate professor, UCD

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