In the first of a series of political columns Meath Live’s Christine O’Mahony offers her take on online abuse of public representatives
Every year politicians talk about online abuse and the need for legislation to deal with abusive and anonymous accounts on social media. Online abuse of political reps is a serious problem, one that can turn people off being a public face. Unfortunately, once you apply for a political position such as a councillor, senator or TD, you are essentially saying goodbye to your private life.
Your picture, name, address and number will be publicised for the public interest. Your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts must be made public. Even if you do not win any elections, your details are still made public.
This can be very problematic for some people. It is not unusual for people to show up to politician’s houses to harass them. In February 2021, a security fence had to be erected outside, Health Minister, Stephen Donnelly’s home, in order to protect Mr Donnelly, his wife and three children. Although Donnelly is the public face, his wife and children are being brought into it, their private life, basically gone. Public reps should not have to go through these measures in order to protect their family, everyone should respect the right to privacy.
But if one is to respect one’s right to privacy, how else is someone going to vent their anger at political decisions? This unfortunately leads to online abuse. Criticising politician’s policies is fine and a completely normal thing to do. Everyone has the right to free speech, without interference from the government. Politicians who respect the right to free speech, listen to the concerns. Politicians who don’t respect that right, use the block button.
But it is when criticisms become personal, that is when it is problematic. For example, Senator Fintan Warfield (Sinn Féin) uploaded a picture of himself on holidays on Instagram. He wore his swimming trunks and a t-shirt from Dunnes Stores that had a picture with the pope on it. While it was a funny picture, it upset those who were Catholic leaning. Warfield was slandered horrifically and was even called a “paedophile” and homophobic remarks were made about his sexuality. Warfield is an openly gay parliamentarian.
This led to Warfield, although a public rep, putting his twitter and Instagram account on private to stop such abuse being flung at him. His accounts are still private to this day. This means that constituents or the rest of the public who did not follow him when he was public, are now deprived of any essential information Warfield may post, as he needs to protect himself.
Lord Mayor Hazel Chu (Green Party), has received horrendous amount of abuse from far-right leaning politicians and their supporters, mostly done by anonymous twitter accounts. In 2017, Fianna Fáil TD, James Lawless said that he wanted legislation to “crack down on fake Twitter accounts/bots”.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, I don’t think any legislation will help with this. We saw that Twitter was able to prevent Trump from using its platform, but that is just one person. Politicians are asking social media companies to deal with millions of faceless accounts, they are also preventing people from being anonymous. Not everyone who is anonymous, is abusive, as mentioned before, we are entitled to a private life, some use twitter anonymously so they can express their views freely without people trying to find their name, address and
employer to harass them. Some are anonymous because of their jobs. Not everyone is a Barbara Pym… I mean Eoghan Harris.
While online abuse of politicians is a serious problem, some councillors have learned the knack for avoiding online abuse. I spoke with Trim Councillor, Ronan Moore (Social Democrats) who said while he received some “nasty comments on Facebook” during the Repeal the 8th campaign when he was a local area rep and came out publicly in support of repeal, he is “fortunate to have not been affected as a councillor”.
He said there are some people who want to start a row on his Facebook posts but he does not engage as it is “not a good use of his time, getting involved in online spats”. he claimed as a “middle aged, white, male” he was “fortunate not to have the same amount of vitriol thrown at him compared to minorities like women”, making reference to his colleague and former colleague, Holly Cairns TD and Independent Cllr, Elisa O’Donovan. He has witnessed them receiving a lot of vitriol.
He revealed that he is “not as active on certain platforms like Twitter” and that he attended a social media course with the Social Democrats that helped him draft his future social media posts, to avoid having abuse thrown at him. He said it is “dangerous when platforms are unregulated” and that it is best to “not give people the oxygen they crave”.
I also spoke with Kells based Cllr Paul McCabe (Fianna Fáil), who like Moore, was thankful to have not received any online abuse, he told me he avoids it as he “does not get involved in any of the controversial stuff”.
The way I see it, there is no clear solution to stopping online abuse. In Moore’s case when he wrote about a social issue like repealing the 8th amendment, he received online abuse. When he writes about a pothole in Trim as part of his job, that might not interest people and therefore he will not receive any abuse for it. Politicians should be able to express their personal views and opinions, they should not have to stop talking about them, to escape abuse.