Leo Varadkar told the Washington Ireland Programme at a virtual event last week that Ireland, along with the rest of the world, is dealing with ‘a crisis of polarization due to the influence of social media’. Social media as distinct from mainstream media. According to the Tánaiste,one side of a story can become ‘accepted fact’ within hours. ‘The wrong end of the stick, an inaccurate story can become accepted fact and truth within hours because they aren’t mediated by the media, they’re just put out there on social media’.
This statement is worth de-constructing.
The first ‘accepted fact’ here that needs to be turned over is Leo’s confident assumption that mainstream media is fair, balanced, informed and responsible. He appears to be inferring that if only all news was ‘mediated’ through MSM, we would have both sides of every story and be able to make up our minds in full possession of accurate information. In fact, Leo’s words offer a very good example of the polarization he deplores.
He simply doesn’t see that his enthusiasm for MSM is as polarizing and provocative as anything could be. It is not surprising of course that he has such faith in it, particularly the Irish version, because it is on the same page as himself on most issues. Their bias is his bias, so it is aligned with ‘the right end of the stick’, or the truth in other words.
MSM has in fact been responsible for the dissemination of ‘one side’ of many stories to serve the agenda it promotes . Examples are legion but here are some stand out examples that show just how wide of truth and balance it can stray. The false conviction of a former Mercy sister, Nora Wall on fabricated charges of rape was reported, gleefully many would say, under such headlines as ‘Vile Nun’, ‘Pervert Nun’, ‘ Mercy Devil’. Her subsequent exoneration led to a successful claim for defamation against The Sunday World who had used her conviction to add further even more ludicrous charges to her alleged crimes. Everybody remembers the newspaper reports of the case and the forthright commentary that accompanied them. The sheer volume and outrage of the reports would be hard to forget. However, the subsequent quashing of her conviction following the discrediting of outlandish allegations by unreliable witnesses should have been an even bigger story. It revealed a shocking level of incompetence, gullibility and arguably anti-church bias on the part of officers of the State, from the Gardai to the judiciary, yet it did not receive even a fraction of that coverage.
Likewise, when Savita Halappanavar was reported to have died as a result of Ireland’s abortion laws, it was MSM who circulated the story, again accompanied by column after column of outraged comment. The inquest’s finding that she died from undiagnosed and untreated sepsis got perfunctory coverage and little by way of commentary. Likewise, the Tuam story about dead babies being dumped by nuns in a septic tank, based on the research of a local historian, has been established as ‘accepted fact’ even though five interim reports by a commission of inquiry reveal the issue is far more complex.
Looking at media beyond Ireland, we can see the same one-sidedness in the sensationalized reporting of the bizarre allegations of one Carl Beech who alleged rape and even murder of children against high profile figures in British public life. When his lies were unmasked, the far greater story of how the whole apparatus of British justice was duped by such an implausible fantasist and the role of bias confirmation in the process was of little or no interest to MSM. In a blatant perversion of truth by MSM, the reputation and career of British philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton appeared to be irredeemably destroyed by a journalist from left leaning New Statesman magazine, George Eaton. Scruton was denounced in the British parliament and sacked from a government advisory position before the exertions of influential friends forced an apology from the magazine and an admission that his views had not been reported either ‘fairly or in full’.
Further away in the US, we saw how MSM’s reporting of ‘peaceful’ BLM protests glossed over the horrific levels of looting and violence that accompanied them. In the Washington Ireland Programme conference alluded to, a US politician lamented the refusal of Trump supporters to accept that Biden had won the presidential race. It would not have even occured to Varadkar, or very likely any of the other participants, that the Democrats, on any number of shifting grounds, never accepted the legitimacy of Trump’s win in 2016. If you want to address the issue of polarisation in a serious way, you must be able to reflect on your own side’s contribution to the problem too.
While MSM represents itself as above the sullied waters of social media, the truth is they walk hand in hand. The stories cited here as instances of biased and unbalanced reporting were fanned across social media by their authors. They have no problem inciting a piranha fest on social media provided they are the ones throwing the prey. They could hardly operate in today’s publishing world, in any case, without using social media to expand their readership and promote their brand.
Leo Varadkar himself is a fairly incessant user of social media. The problem for him and for MSM is that they do not control social media, at least not yet. Social media is in fact a multi-sided purveyor of news and views. Yes, it can be misleading, misinformed, mischievous and much worse; but it can also raise questions and break stories that MSM and the elites it serves don’t want us to know about.
Arguments to make social media accountable in law to the extent that MSM is accountable should not be conflated with a campaign to suppress freedom of expression and censor challenges to prevailing social and political orthodoxies. This is the real aim of the political establishment. Social media is potentially the most open and democratic of platforms. That is why it is subject to censorship and suppression in totalitarian states like China, Iran and North Korea. Leo Varadkar might not like to be associated with any of those regimes but is the difference between his attitude and theirs in respect of social media only a matter of degree?
As we can see from the way social media bosses are prepared to modify their software to satisfy China, they know their commercial interest is ultimately served by working with rather than against ruling establishments. It is less easy to set up cyber roadblocks in democratic countries but it is possible. We have seen how video footage of the child in the womb was deemed misleading advertising by Facebook during the 2018 campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment. Who put pressure on Facebook on that occasion? More recently, Twitter banned the Iona Institute’s utterly inoffensive advertisement for a short video outlining the charitable work of the Catholic Church across the globe. When asked to explain their decision, Twitter just stated it ‘violated their policy’. You don’t have to explain what you do unless it offends the powerful.
You won’t find Leo Varadkar objecting to the lack of balance and fairness here or commenting on its polarizing effect.