Why must public access to social media come with such vitriolic online abuse?

Why must public access to social media come with such vitriolic online abuse?

DRIVING along through the winding lanes of rural Ireland recently I listened to a man called John Prenty on the radio.

He is the Secretary of Connacht GAA and he was raising the issue of online abuse.

Anything can be said online, he pointed out, anything can be tweeted or written and this means, in effect, that online abuse is meted out on a regular basis to the volunteers and amateurs who constitute the GAA.

This is not, he pointed out, only a feature of games involving high profile inter-county players, played in stadiums and amongst circumstances that have all the trappings of professional sport.

It is a feature too of the local games, matches played between parishes, under-age games, games played by fully amateur players.

Online abuse is meted out too after those games.

In Ireland, by the Irish, directly at the heart of Irish culture, the GAA.

Social media as an infection, if you like, a pandemic, hostile and relentless. Bringing out the worst in so many people.

That was a week or so before the horrendous murder of Ashling Murphy in Offaly, near an area of land known as Fiona’s Way, named after an Irishwoman who has been missing since 1997.

Since 1996, in fact, 244 women have been violently murdered in Ireland, though Ireland is still, statistically, one of the world’s safest countries.

Across Ireland there were a number of vigils in memory of Ashling Murphy. One held online, for those who couldn’t attend a vigil in person, was interrupted by a man exposing himself.

Arguing that there is not a problem with men is to simply ignore facts.

Those women weren’t murdered by women, were they?

Further into the online world the voices of hate and intolerance and prejudice did more than just ignore facts, they twisted them.

As soon as it was known that the initial suspect, since revealed as completely innocent, was an immigrant they insisted the problem was not about male behaviour but about immigration.

Right in the aftermath of that young woman’s horrendous death they were parading their vile hatred on social media.

Ireland’s far right, though is a clever mixture.

They realise that the hostility they embody can only go so far and needs to be leavened with something more subtle.

Thus, one of their more active Twitter accounts is run by the wife of the leader of The Irish National Party.

She mixes sweet pictures of her children, scenes of domesticity, and everyday motherly situations with the standard playbook references of the far right.

Indeed, her response to the relaxation of Covid restrictions was to insist that ‘we won’,

They won the pandemic. Thousands of deaths later.

The dominance of the online world is less than fifteen years old.

The question is one of whether in another fifteen years we will have let the overwhelmingly hostile strain that characterises so much of online discourse, whether it be political, sporting, or personal, become the dominant strain.

Yes, truly, there are questions to be asked about men and why some behave the way they do.

Talking, just over the last few days with women, I didn’t come across one who hadn’t been catcalled in the streets.

The streets of small Irish towns. There are questions, too, to be asked about the toxic dangers of the far right.

Their role in the misinformation that dogged the pandemic is a matter of fact but the latent hostility they promulgate so loudly on social media, despite their negligible electoral representation, is a reflection of the virtual world we live in.

There is, though, a wider question too, which probably feeds into the poison of male violence and far right hatred.

Why is it the case that access to a platform, Facebook, say, or Twitter, has led so many to express such a variety of vile things?

I’ve no doubt that some of the comments that will follow this column online, as they have over the last few years, will only prove the legitimacy of the question.

My own online experience, in the form of this column, has seen the well thought out and well-constructed letters I used to receive, often disagreeing with me, replaced by barely literate tirades from Trump supporters or anti-vax warriors.

An American has wanted to meet me on Grafton Street for a fight and an anti-vaxxer wanted to ‘track me down’.

Now I’m an Irishman from inner city Birmingham who’s too old to care about such nonsense, but is this the world we want?