Regular readers will be aware of the exceedingly high regard in which the Government holds public consultations, having paid witness to Ben’s scoop a few months ago in regard to the outcome of the public consultation on the hate speech bill. In that instance, despite some 70% of public responses running against the Government’s proposal, the bill proceeded anyway, in much the same shape as the Government had originally intended that it would.
And yet, readers will know that the revelation that the Government had so comprehensively ignored the balance of submissions on their own public consultation was an important story, and that it caused some embarrassment to those who rule over us. The hate speech bill now lies relatively dormant, while it awaits some official rationale for bringing a new and improved version of it back to the Oireachtas.
I mention all of this because the Government is presently engaged in another public consultation – and, like many such consultations, it is one that has been officially announced, but scantly promoted. A cynic might say that the Government is eager that all the right people know about this consultation, and that all of the wrong people somehow fail to notice that it is underway.
This particular consultation concerns what the Government should do about “misinformation” and “disinformation”. Or, if you are indeed a cynic, it concerns how the Government might further tighten the noose around the free exchange of ideas and information in Irish society.
The consultation is set out against the backdrop of five principles that the Government’s working group on misinformation recommended to be adopted. You can read all of those here.
Amongst those principles, principle 2 is of particular interest:
Promoting diversity and plurality of information and access to high quality ethical journalism by regulating and supporting the media sector.
“Regulating and supporting the media sector” is an interesting phrase, and one which should provoke serious concern amongst anybody who already thinks that the Irish media is, on balance, pretty compliant when it comes to covering the Government. The ordinary definition of the word “regulation” is pretty clear, and it seems entirely directed, in the context of “misinformation”, to ensuring increased control by politicians of the news and opinions that news media reports on. “Supporting”, one might fairly assume, is the carrot that comes alongside the stick: Those media outlets that are good and responsible will get additional funding. Those of us who are bold might not.
If this is something you have an opinion on, well, the public consultation is open until October 23rd.
But interest does not end with principle 2. Consider also principle 3:
New digital media and platforms can help to spread disinformation more quickly than ever before. Measures to counter this should enforce and incentivisethe lawful use of people’s data, ethical business models, and preventing digital platforms’ recommended algorithms from amplifying hate and hysteria in people’s video and social feeds for commercial gain
On the face of it, that all sounds nice and cuddly, but consider who it will be who gets to decide what “hate and hysteria” is defined as: Again, this comes down to whether you trust the Government to regulate what you see on the internet when you open your browser. It is the state seeking the power to in effect control the news that you consume, and ensure that “hate and hysteria” (however that might be defined on a given day) is not something that you see.
There is no earthly reason to trust the state with this kind of power, or to believe that such a power would be used in the public interest rather than in the political interest. Political debates – just witness the current intensity of the Israel/Palestine issue – tend towards heated rhetoric by nature. It would not be hard for a person with base motives to simply define the opposition or opposing rhetoric as hateful and hysterical, and in need of censorship.
This consultation needs to hear from the widest possible spectrum of views. I have made a submission to it, and I encourage all readers who are concerned about this issue to do the same. You can make your submission here.