‘Anti-establishment’ tone on social media influences attitudes towards politicians, says ombudsman

An “anti-establishment” tone that exists on social media influences people’s attitudes toward politicians, an Oireachtas committee has said.

Speaking to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Petitions on Thursday, Press Ombudsman Peter Feeney said aggressive and misogynistic comments posted online affected the public’s reaction when meeting politicians.

“I don’t know a TD or a senator who hasn’t told me over the years that the very practice of knocking on your constituent’s door at election time has grown from a relatively pleasant experience 20 years ago. years, to now, quite frequently, being an aggressive experience.

“People pick up the tone, the cynical, anti-establishment tone, on social media, which can be very aggressive and very unpleasant, especially female members of the Oireachtas have experienced that; they are sometimes subjected to what can only be described as despicable abuses.

He said the comment sections of online newspapers needed to be regulated just as much as comments on Facebook and Twitter et al.

Mr Feeney said the Irish Times and the Irish Independent had introduced controls on their online commentary services which had helped to “civilize” this content.

The Press Ombudsman is a non-statutory role and provides a service to readers who wish to complain about material published by print and online newspapers and magazines which have volunteered to be subject to the Press Council’s Code of Practice . It has no role in relation to the material broadcast.

Mr Feeney told Fianna Fáil deputy Cormac Devlin at the committee meeting on Thursday that the existence of the ombudsman’s office helped support general standards of journalism and the principle of truth and accuracy.

“I don’t know a journalist who doesn’t believe in the value of truth and accuracy.”

Pandemic impact

The work of his office had changed very drastically over the past two years, when he had received a large number of complaints about coverage of the pandemic.

“The majority of these complaints have come from people who are fundamentally opposed to vaccination, or people who oppose measures such as working from home and wearing masks etc.”

What these complainants were actually doing was voicing their disagreement with public health policies, he said, but they were unable to report violations of the journalists’ code of ethics.

“It’s the message that people don’t like, rather than the journalism itself.”

He believed the pandemic had been handled well, and handled responsibly, by the mainstream media. He had not ignored the fact that there were people who opposed vaccination or some of the public health measures, he noted.

He said the role the press has played during the pandemic has made a significant contribution to how the country has coped with the challenges of the past two years.

“My view is that the pandemic has boosted public trust in traditional media, and I think that’s probably in contrast to social media, where most of the claims about the dangers of vaccination etc. are.

It was mainly conspiracy theorists who said that because newspapers relied heavily on government-paid advertising, it indirectly influenced their coverage, he said.

“I don’t know of any journalist who takes their shots at the government just because there’s a Covid advert from the HSE. It doesn’t happen that way.

Target families

Fianna Fáil Senator Eugene Murphy said he had seen people post “despicable” information anonymously on social media about him and his family.

Mr Feeney said he believed such anonymity allowed “too much freedom to abuse, too much freedom to defame people, too much freedom to be aggressive, etc”.

He welcomed the planned regulation of social media, which he said was absolutely vital. The proposals include a new online safety commissioner who will oversee how social media sites deal with harmful content on their services.

“I think so [the planned regulation] is a really necessary step,” he told Fine Gael MP Emer Higgins. “I think the key question is whether these social media companies deal with complaints.”

Offensive or threatening content needed to be taken down quickly, but the structures social media companies put in place to deal with the public were not user-friendly at all, he said. “For example, there is no phone number where I can call Facebook.”

He said methods had to be found to support national and local media, but direct financial support from the government could give the impression that it influenced content.

A social media tax could be funneled to local media, without it being considered government funding, he said.

Mr. Feeney said it was important for the state to have a strong national media.

Independent MP Richard O’Donoghue said he used social media to get his message across and criticized what he said was the time RTÉ gave government officials over independent politicians.

This article was modified on February 17, 2022

Previous Lynn Buckle wins Barbellion Award; Irish authors and booksellers on several charts
Next Wicklow shoppers are Ireland's biggest online consumers