Today’s Irish Times carries a genuinely thought-provoking article. It’s by Finn McRedmond and it’s titled ‘Jennifer Zamparelli falls foul of amplified outrage’. In brief, the article looks at a planned discussion on RTÉ radio about wearing or not wearing face-masks, which got cancelled because of a twitter-storm of objections. There were claims that such a discussion would give validity to the views of those who were opposed to face-mask wearing, in spite of scientific evidence. In the end Zamparelli cancelled the discussion. This upsets McRedmond: “This was another instance of social media exercising an overweening influence on traditional media… Twitter is a platform that trades in outrage; one that encourages public shaming; and one that thrives off pretending complicated questions are actually black and white certainties.”
I have sympathy with McRedmond’s claim, having myself been the object of Twitter outrage. When I mentioned Naomi Long’s appearance, the twittersphere lit up with howling outrage; no attempt of any kind was made to look at the point I was making. When I mentioned that Patsy Gillespie, blown to bits by the IRA, was on the IRA’s list of legitimate targets because he worked in a British army base, again the tweeters went mad. No attempt was made to deal with the factual accuracy of the point and the BBC was pressured (to its shame) into boycotting me.
McRedmond’s point is that Twitter often acts as a censor on what can and cannot be heard or discussed on the air or in the mainstream media. He’s absolutely right: sure don’t I know it. But there’s an elephant in the armchair that no one deals with. A couple of them, actually.
One is that the mainstream media don’t actually have to bend and buckle in the face of twittersphere screams and yells. It may be an unpleasant background against which to work, but if you have a belief in what you’re doing, shouldn’t you go ahead and to hell with the crazies?
The other is that social media, as well as providing a platform for the nuts and the nasties, also provides a platform that can be used to challenge the mainstream media. Nobody should be under any delusion that the mainstream media here are national treasures, models of objectivity and fairness. They’re not. We know that during the Troubles, much of the mainstream media here was the plaything of the British and unionist establishment. What were in fact lies were promoted over decades as fact, collusion being the most obvious example, closely followed by the absence of historical context for our conflict.
So I’ m with you, Finn, in your awareness of the lynch-party tendencies to be found in social media. I’m less impressed by your assumption that mainstream media are the voice which speaks truth to power. Much of the mainstream media doesn’t even try to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Sometimes they can’t handle the truth ; other times they choose not to.