Social media can be a wonderful experience. It allows those who do not have a voice to have a voice. It creates links and new communities that pave the way for new sorts of communication. It allows businesses and organisations to communicate directly with their customers and members in ways that would have been deemed impractical in the past. It also gets people using the medium of language in order to praise, to encourage, to support, to embolden people who need emboldening, to vocalise causes that might otherwise remain silent.
However, there is another side to social media, and one that has come to much attention in the past few days following the tragic death of Shane McEntee. It is the incredible capacity of social media to insult, to terrorise, to humiliate, to bully.
We come to this discussion with a certain degree of experience in this field, given our role in the administration of one of the top Facebook communities in the country, in terms of interaction, posts, conversations, and responses. Our Facebook pages are not built for the generation of friends for commercial exploitation, but are maintained in order to genuinely encourage the generation of interaction so that a strong online community interested in the common subjects that matter to us can be created.
We know that to be able to speak to so many people at an instant is a privilege. Our paper edition has been welcomed through tens of thousands of letterboxes for almost five decades, and now our digital communities are invited into tens of thousands of devices every week. Such access is a privilege to be appreciated. In the same way that driving on the public roads is a privilege, allowing us to go where we want when we want.
But the privilege of being able to use social media is abused. People drive recklessly on the roads unless regulation is enforced. They speed, drive while drunk, drive while distracted. And on social media, recklessness means some people can be cruel, heartless, inappropriate, disrespectful and lacking downright in good manners in almost equal measure to those who are not. The concept of trolling, ie, cruelty for fun has driven many people off social media.
Gerry McEntee spoke on Sunday at the funeral mass of his brother and criticised those faceless individuals who opted to verbally attack his brother in extreme ways on social media. Unfortunately for those in politics or in the public eye, such abuse or targeting is a new reality. Topics often degenerate into abuse and bullying, and contentions are made that would be deemed libelous and defamatory if they were made on paper or face to face.
It is just not enough to say that politicians et al should be tough enough to accept this. Social media can be overwhelming to all generations. Its invasive nature is accentuated by the fact that it is available on all devices, following users throughout the day and night, meaning victims carry the abuse around with them in their pockets.
So what is the answer? Regulation? Can this be enforced. In 2013, will we see any slowdown in the degeneration of online debate into abuse? Will good manners come back to social media or will it take some class defamation actions like those taken by Lord McAlpine in the UK is order to put manners and respect to the forefront of social media etiquette?