We should learn to embrace social media – not to fear it

Deputy Ciaran Cannon

Over the last number of months, two of my Oireachtas colleagues, Deputy Pat Rabbitte and Senator Lorraine Higgins, have published two separate but similar pieces of legislation to regulate how we communicate using social media.

Ten years ago such legislation would have aroused little interest as the number of social media users in Ireland was quite small.

BY CIARAN CANNON, TD

Today however, that number is moving towards 2.5 million and for many of us our primary interaction with members of our local community is through sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Both Deputy Rabbitte and Senator Higgins have published their legislation in the belief that such legislation is necessary to eliminate the bullying and intimidation that sometimes occurs online.

I disagree fundamentally with this assessment and as a politician I believe it is important to express an alternative viewpoint.

A total of 60% of Irish adults use Facebook and of those, 70% use it every single day. Well over half of us in this country have taken the time to join the world’s largest conversation where a billion people interact in a way that simply wasn’t possible even five years ago.

Recent research published in the US concluded that 70% of teenage social media users say that social media made them feel better connected to their friends’ feelings and 68% of teenage users said that those online friends supported them through challenging times in their lives. Why is this happening?

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.

Dr. T.J. McIntyre, a law lecturer at UCD, has outlined on a number of occasions that the offence of harassment contrary to the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 has already been used to prosecute online activity.

In each case, whether civil or criminal, there are already mechanisms to permit the identification of internet users accused of serious wrongdoing.

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 “un-friend” 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.

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 these advances.

The Catholic Church attempted to quell the learning revolution facilitated by Gutenberg’s printing press. 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. In July of 2012 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 of 2012

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?

  • Ciaran Cannon TD was formerly the Minister for Training & Skills at the Department of Education & Skills. He is a long-time advocate and supporter of Coderdojo, and founder of EXCITED – The Digital Learning Movement.