09 January 2013

We have always been at war with the Internets

Live & Love by Maser. A sentiment that I think we all can agree with.
Kevin Street, Dublin, January 6th, 2013
That last post was altogether too fact based, if you ask me. I think it's time to turn on RANTS LOCK and get back to shouty mode here at Booming Back. Tonight's topic, further thoughts on the current crusade against Social Media being waged by the Irish establishment.

Harry Browne said a very interesting thing the other night. Browne, an academic, sometime-journalist and author says a fair amount of interesting things, but on this night he cut through the hysteria and ill-informed hyperbole that surrounded him like a hot metaphor through something that normally isn't so tractable. 

The occasion was RTE's much vaunted entry into the recent scaremongering of social meeja by the conservative stalwarts of our political establishment and their chums in the dead tree branch of the Fourth Estate, a foray to be spearheaded by Ireland's answer to Pat Kenny, Mr Pat Kenny. "Are the media too hard on politicians?", he asked on Frontline, his razor sharp insight getting to the crux of what has been on the mind of every right-thinking citizen, asking the one question we have all been too afraid to ask. 

It was here that Harry Browne paused, reflected on all the wrong decisions that he took over the course of his life that resulted in him sitting on a stage in Montrose having to answer a question so inane that even the hot-tubbed brain trust on Tallafornia would feel insulted by it, and then replied, "When the media agrees with all the Government's polices, all they have left is to criticise individuals".

Or words to that effect, I took notes via Twitter and the 140 character limit means that on occasion things get lost in digital translation.

That is surely the crux of the matter here, that the print, radio and television media in this country by and large agrees with all of the Government's current policies. During the last administration they served as cheer-leaders for the Celtic Tiger Boom (Brendan O'Connor and his chorus at the Irish Independent should never be allowed to forget their Bertie worship and consistent lionisation of the "ballsy" property developers, even as the pyrite-infested foundations of this debt-built castle of dreams were crumbling around us all), and two years on they continue to recite the blood-stained cultish mantra, 'there is no alternative, there is no alternative, there is no alternative", as if trying to summon dread Cthulhu from deepest R'lyeh with their monotonous dirge. 

What little dissent they show is focused on the individual, in the form of a carefully crafted outrage designed to deflect and diffuse public anger, like cattle walked through a curving Temple Grandin chute to calm them down before they hit the slaughterhouse. Headlines decry the alleged "Stroke Politics" of Minister Reilly over the suspicious placement of primary health centres, but no link is ever made between Bond Payments and savage cuts to the woefully inadequate Health Service. When the Government denies that the invisible hand of the parish pump could ever be behind national resource allocation, the Fourth Estate tugs its forelock and goes, "ah sure grand now, we were just checking", and returns back to photoshopping photos of bikini-clad IE-list celebrities, or whatever it is Wikipedia defines 'Journalism' as today.

The symptoms can be agonised over, but the causes may never be referred to. Manufactured outrage is created, and diffused. The public gets their Two Minute Hate but ultimately no damage has been inflicted, and somewhere a nice big cheque lands in the bank account of Ms Terry Prone.

With the media walking hand-in-hand with the Government like a pair of young lovers on the first day of a Parisian Spring, the only form of actual public dissent emanates from the Bieber/One Direction clogged wasteland of Social Media. Never ones to waste valuable shoe-leather on marching or protesting or actual Real World engagement with the issues, the Irish public have, nonetheless, taken to Social Media like barflies to a drunken pub-stool conversation wherein all the ills of the world are identified in sarcasm-laced detail and easily dismissed with the wave of a black-and-white porter wand.

"My Goodness, My Governance!", as the Toucan of Beery Truth might say.

The Government, however, has come to rather enjoy the lack of critical reflection upon its activities, and of late seems quite upset about the unflattering discourse taking place online. "Won't somebody please think of the children?" they cry, and while there have indeed been a number of tragic cases recently that have involved online bullying, sadly the Government seems to be engaged in a cynical effort to manipulate the understandable resulting public sympathy to their own ends. They manage to simultaneously conflate genuine bullying by and towards minors with any form of anger expressed towards the Government, while incredulously managing to stand apart from their own physical agression towards their critics.

Bullying's bad, m'kay, except it would seem when it happens in the Dáil to Ming Flanagan live on TV and the bullies are all wearing Louis Copeland.

The answer of course is to hold an inquiry, bring it all before a Dáil Committee. Our elected representatives don't need to investigate the circumstances of the bank guarantee, the links between politicians, developers and bankers, NAMA, IBRC, the Health Service or even the death of Savita Halappanavar. The number one issue that needs their attention are the trolls on Politics.ie, and their answer no doubt will be a policy even the Chinese could only dream of.

And all the while the hunchbacked media trapped in the eyries of Notre Dame de la Tara Street ring out for their unrequited governmental love, their wails carried high over the din of the crowds below, "The trolls, Esmerelda, the trolls!"

Incivility online is a problem, one I've written about before, but legislation will never change this. It is caused not by technology or anonymity but rather by a media-sculpted culture that believes placing socially awkward people on a public stage for the sole purpose of degrading and humiliating them by destroying their self-worth in front of a television audience of fifteen million is the pinnacle of Saturday evening family entertainment. Life is full of nasty people, but the media encourages and commercialises this nastiness in a Fordist assembly-line of bile. 

Social Media is built on the premise that it is self-regulating, that users will reject inappropriate behaviour and shun those who promote it. But Social Media users do not exist in an isolated online bubble, their attitudes and social mores are built upon a historical assemblage of learned behaviours, from their earliest parental role models through to adolescent peers and on to the all-encompassing envelope of Old Media that surrounds their adult life, all of which are networked together in a complex tapestry of positive and negative reinforcements. When any single one of these groups takes a deep dive into the toxic plunge pool of public puerility, the other elements are pulled kicking and screaming into the accompanying sinkhole of incivility. If our online communities fail to reject inappropriate behaviour it is because they have been conditioned in the Real World to accept, if not revel in, such behaviour.

Whether through the ritual humiliation of hapless "contestants" on reality TV or the school-boy thuggery of our elected representatives broadcast live from the Dáil or on One Of Those Programmes, the Tristan and Isolde of our media and political elite pollute and debase society at large. Boorish behaviour online is the harvest that they themselves have sown, for if offline society views humiliation and aggression as entertainment how can they ever be expected to moderate such behaviour online?

Incivility online is not caused by the single lout who blasts out a solitary tweet, rather it comes from the chorus of bystanders who have been programmed to find such behaviour acceptable and either echo and amplify it, or through inaction stand silent and let it pass unchecked.

That is where we find ourselves at the dawn of the new year. The only voice that the people use to articulate their dissent is under existential and potential legislative threat from both the Government and their tame press. The more the press wring their hands and debate the matter, the more money they make and the less room there is to pay lip-service to the other issues of the day, like our catastrophic economic collapse and the failed policies that continue to perpetuate our misery, and the more anger is generated and expressed online by a frustrated citizenry. 

And so the cycle begins again, an eternally looping ouroboros that St Patrick somehow failed to drive out, dragging us all down with every debilitating bite of its own tail, our wrath and anger micromanaged and monetized by the very machine we rage against, and all the while the change we crave will never come, for all we do is talk.

All we do is talk.

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