MALICE IN THE SOCIAL MEDIA

18 January 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The power of the social media to inflict great harm as well as confer great benefit on its users is becoming increasingly evident.
It is now a distressing commonplace to encounter examples where text messaging, e-mails or networking sites have been utilised as weapons for the infliction of malicious injury upon unfortunate and vulnerable individuals, with sometimes tragic results.
The high profile that such cases occupy in news coverage and public debate have heightened awareness of the dangers inherent in the ubiquitous forms of instant electronic communication that now play a part in all our lives – but such attention has arguably brought us no nearer to adequately addressing the problem.
The solution is not easily arrived at. The very nature of the new media makes them resistant to conventional forms of regulatory control – appointing some agency to police them in any effective sense is impossible because of the vastness of the communications traffic involved, and any attempt to do so, and some have been made, quickly evokes strong opposition on the grounds of censorship and Big Brother tactics.
Cyberspace is not, however, a lawless territory.
Though its seemingly boundless limits and the illusion of anonymity that can be created by the environment can prompt users to act without the restraint they would exercise with other forms of communication, those who libel or victimise others in this fashion can be identified and held accountable.
Prosecutions for abuse of social media channels are becoming more frequent – but it is doubtful if they have yet reached the stage where they act as an effective deterrent.
Curbing the harm done while preserving the freedoms and benefits delivered by these forms of communication confronts society with a difficult balancing act.
A form of legislation specific to the media concerned might bring clarity to the many grey areas of what is permissible and lead to more rigorous and consistently applied penalties for transgressions.
This is something our politicians might eventually get around to addressing – in the meantime, and that is likely to be a protracted one, the task of regulation falls upon wider society, and most heavily one feels upon those who are most active in the social media environment.
The majority of people who network in this fashion do so responsibly, observant of the protocols that have been established by usage and common consent.
Yet there is probably too great a tolerance for those who do not adhere to the rules of responsible practice – abuses are too frequently indulged or at best ignored, even though the means are there on the major networking sites at least for those who offend or transgress to be identified and subject to sanction.
Social networking is still in its relative infancy, and a situation perhaps pertains similar to that which reigned with regard to the drink-driving laws in this country some decades ago, where those who were neglectful of their responsibilities in this regard were silently disapproved of but infrequently confronted or chastised by their peers.
Societal attitudes to drinking and driving have now thankfully changed – if we can fast-track a similar zero tolerance attitude towards the social media abuser, it will have a greater impact than any legislation or formal regulation on curbing a growing evil that inflicts great injury and upset upon those who suffer it.

LESS
COUNCILLORS, LESS DEMOCRACY?

A debate at the recent meeting of Monaghan Co Council brought into focus the fact that in the very near future there are going to be a lot less of that often maligned species, the local public representative.
The councillor cull recently announced by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan as part of the ‘Putting People First’ package of local government reform measures has not provoked the same public outcry as customarily greets the steps taken to reduce the population of seals, say, or even badgers.
But it is something, we feel, with which the public should be concerned – even if they do not lament the passing of the many local politicians shortly to be removed from their midst, they should be asking questions about what quality of democracy they will enjoy in the aftermath.
Co Monaghan currently has 65 local councillors, although that figure includes a number who double-job on both town and county authorities. With the abolition of Town Councils in 2014, we will have 18 – maybe a few more – who will form the membership of both a single Co Council and two, perhaps three, Municipal Districts, the latter entity a replacement for the town bodies.
At the recent Co Council meeting, members, asked to make a submission to the new Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee that will help the Minister determine the configuration of future electoral divisions and how Municipal Districts are shaped, speculated as to what the future might hold.
Carrickmacross Fianna Fáil councillor Pádraig McNally shared a somewhat alarming vision of a post-2014 Co Monaghan where the Co Council was comprised of the membership of two Municipal Districts, one based in the north of the county and one in the south, each with nine members.
Colr McNally felt that on certain issues where rival interests emerged and which necessitated a vote, a north/south divide and a consequent 9-9 voting split could result, leaving the seat of the Co Mayor, where the casting vote would reside, a periodically hot one but also a position of influence that would be much desired by the political groupings.
Although something of a doomsday scenario – issues that would split the county along such a neat geographical divide would not arise with any great frequency, we feel – Colr McNally’s fears nonetheless highlight the pitfalls inherent in the tampering that will take place with this county’s fundamental political structures.
As Colr Gary Carville correctly highlighted, it is the county’s smaller towns – Castleblayney, Ballybay and Clones – who have most to lose in the reconfiguration.
In a county with only two Municipal Districts, they would completely lose their separate local authority identify – with three Districts, each represented by perhaps six councillors, the Mid-Monaghan area at least would have some chance to preserve an influential presence.
And Colr McNally’s concerns should not be dismissed entirely – the spectre of parochialism and political self-interest has been to a good degree banished from the county’s local authority chambers in recent times, but it could well re-emerge given the limited spoils to be shared in terms of seats and representative places.
But in all the chopping and changing and musical chairs likely to ensue when the 2014 local elections take place, it is the public interest that matters most – and it is hard not to be sceptical about how the people’s right to democratic representation and accountability will be better served under the new dispensation.
Will it be a case of the people being put first – or is Sinn Féin councillor Sean Conlon’s diagnosis of the situation as “a decimation of democracy” closer to the mark?

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