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Column: Politicians should engage in social media, not regulate it

Some fear social media because they misunderstand it or fear power being transferred from the few to the many but it needs no more or no less regulation than our existing methods, argues junior minister Ciarán Cannon.

Ciarán Cannon

IN THE FRENETIC and sometimes superficial world of modern politics you can move from one challenge to another, sometimes for days upon end, without ever taking time to reflect upon the kind of society we are creating through the work that we do.

It can take something extraordinary to convince us to step off the hamster wheel and really think deeply about why we first became politicians and the legacy we want to leave behind. The tragic loss of a dear colleague in December caused all of us to do exactly that.

Over the last few weeks, through that process of reflection, the conversation has slowly turned to the subject of social media and its role in Irish society.

Some of my colleagues have genuinely held beliefs that more regulation of social media is necessary but I disagree fundamentally with this assessment and as a politician I believe it is important to express an alternative viewpoint.

There are 2.2 million Facebook users in Ireland. Almost one out of every two of our people have taken the time to join the world’s largest conversation where 950 million people interact in a way that simply wasn’t possible nine years ago.

The number of Twitter users in Ireland is now hovering around half a million. Around the world one million new accounts are added to Twitter every day. Why is this happening?

Irish law is clear

From the dawn of humanity we as a species have sought to communicate with each other through whatever means is available to us. We always have and we always will. From hunter gatherer conversations around campfires to communicating with Armstrong on the moon, from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg, we have constantly innovated and found new ways of satisfying our need to reach out to others and to express ourselves as individuals.

For now, social media is the pinnacle of our communication innovation. But it is only that, our newest method of communication and it should be subject to no more and no less regulation than our existing methods.

Irish law is quite clear in this area, what is unacceptable in offline communication, is equally unacceptable online. Where someone chooses to defame or incite hatred under an online cloak of anonymity, there are legal mechanisms to reveal their identity and pursue them using the full rigours of the law.

As politicians we have to be open to fair criticism. We are also mature enough to discern the difference between someone who wishes to express a passionately held opinion and someone who is just spewing spiteful bile.

If we are subjected to unwarranted abuse on our own social media accounts we do have fairly simple options open to us to immediately end that abuse, the “unfriend” and “block” buttons. These options are no different to binning hate mail or hanging up on abusive callers, something right minded politicians have been doing for decades.

Some of the fear of social media stems from a misunderstanding of how social media works and that can be overcome through education. In particular we need to make people aware of the protection afforded to them by our existing laws and regulations.

However I believe that much of the fear arises from the transfer of communicative power from the few to the many, the democratisation of dissemination. Anyone with a phone and a social media account can publish their thoughts to the world in a matter of seconds.

Transfer of power

Whether those online ramblings are deserving of a Pulitzer or not is irrelevant, we all have an inalienable right to express our opinion. There are some in the political sphere, both practitioners and media commentators, who are distinctly uncomfortable with this recent transfer of power.

They are losing control of the “message” and feel challenged, now that the power to communicate with many is no longer the preserve of the few. Some calls for regulation of social media are well intentioned. My fear is that those who would like to regain control of public discourse could exploit the genuinely held concerns of others to do exactly that.

After almost every major advance in communications technology there have been attempts to regulate the use of such advances because those who held the communicative power and its associated knowledge felt threatened by them.  The Catholic Church attempted to quell the learning revolution facilitated by Gutenberg’s printing press.

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It is estimated that before Gutenberg’s invention there were perhaps 30,000 books in all of Europe. Fifty years later there were over ten million and the futility of the church’s censorship efforts soon became apparent to everyone.

Less than thirty years ago, in Ceaucescu’s Romania, the humble typewriter was considered to be a dangerous weapon and ownership of that instrument of expression had to be licenced by the Romanian police force.

Thankfully we are now living in far more enlightened times. Last July the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution confirming that online freedom of expression is a basic human right. The resolution says that all people should be allowed to connect to and express themselves freely on the internet. Coincidentally, Ireland became a member of the Human Rights Council in November.

All politicians who value genuine freedom of expression, including the rights of those who wish to publicly question our actions, should resist any calls for increased regulation of social media.

We should encourage our colleagues to avail of a new and valuable opportunity to communicate directly with the people who elect us, the people who place their trust in us. Why would we do otherwise?

Ciarán Cannon is the Minister of State for Training and Skills and Fine Gael TD for Galway East.

Read: TD says social media bullying has contributed to deaths

Read: Internet freedom not to be curbed: UN telecoms head

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