A CHALLENGE TO FACEBOOK
Alitany of horrors.
I looked back at The Message, at the front of the Hot Press
Annual, published at this time last year, and that’s what I saw. I looked back at 2015 and it was the same. And I thought: Christ, I can’t face into that routine again. Even I don’t want to be scarified by the year’s death toll, as a result of war, terrorism and famine. And I’m sure you, as a reader, feel the same. People are entitled to a bit of respite.
The grim truth is that the world feels like a scary, and often sickening place. In so many respects, it is in a horrendous mess – and there is little sign that things are going to get any better, any time soon. And that is coming from someone who is tagged, sometimes with a chuckle, as the Eternal Optimist. I may be laughing, but I am not joking. That’s the trouble with being optimistic: it gets harder every day.
On occasion, it is possible to delude ourselves into believing that, as sentient human beings, we have established, more or less, what the word civilisation means. That we are good at the business of organising societies. That we are collectively capable of the kind of compromise which is needed for stable and harmonious living, side by side.
And then you look around at what is happening in the real world. At the growing gap between the rich and the poor. At the disastrous effects of famine in Yemen. At the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyan muslims in Myanmar. At the chilling rise of Nazism, in America, in Poland, in Hungary, in France, in Austria, and elsewhere. At the poisonous influence of Putin’s Russia on world affairs. At the grotesque infantilism and endless, pathetic shouting, roaring and lying of the President of the USA, Donald Trump. At the atrocities perpetrated by brutally misguided lone wolf Islamists. At the outrageous, despotic regime in Saudi Arabia. At the monumental selfdestructive stupidity of Brexit...
A litany of horrors. I could go on, and on, and on, but that is what I vowed not to do.
Meanwhile, there is the small matter of the future of the planet and the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change to worry about. Well, on this occasion, my friends, I don’t want to ponder that either. Instead, I want to think locally. We are, after all, unlikely to be able to do much about the precarious situation in Germany, where the inability to form a coalition government might yet precipitate a further lurch to the right.
In contrast, there are things in Ireland that may be within our control.
But only if we play our hands exceptionally well, and remain alert to the dangers. That may not be easy. But it will, I believe, be absolutely vital.
WHAT THE FUCK IS HE TALKING ABOUT?
Thank you for asking. Things are bad. But everything is not always for the worst in this worst of all possible worlds. One of the great and potentially defining moments of 2017 in Ireland came when the Citizens’ Assembly delivered its recommendations in relation to abortion.
There was near unanimous agreement among members that it was essential to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Constitution, which ludicrously, and damningly, gives equal weight to the rights of the so-called ‘unborn’ as to the rights of a woman who is pregnant.
That was not a surprise. Opinion polls in recent years have consistently shown that a majority of voters support Repeal. But no one in politics had anticipated the extent to which the Assembly would embrace the proChoice perspective. In effect, the Citizens’ Assembly endorsed the view that abortion should be freely available up to 12 weeks. It represented a stunning victory for those who argue that, ultimately, it is a woman’s right to choose.
How this came about is interesting. The members of the Citizens’ Assembly sat through hours of argument and debate. They listened attentively to both sides. And they carefully weighed up what they heard.
It is almost certain that over the course of their lengthy deliberations, numerous members of the Assembly changed their minds. They understood the complexities better. And, as a result, they became more pragmatic and more open.
Women already have the right to information. And they have the right to travel. The reality, then, is that they will choose to travel to the UK for abortions that are not permitted in Ireland, if they believe that it is the right and the best option for them to take. If a minimalist approach is taken to allowing abortion, the effect will be that we will continue to export the problem. In real terms, what is the point in that? There is none.
The effect of forcing women to travel is to put them through trauma that would be avoided if they could access abortion in Ireland. Sometimes the effect can be to put individuals’ lives at risk. We know that the constitutional ban has resulted in the deaths of women. We know too that, because of it, vulnerable teenagers have been stripped of their freedom by the courts. We know that many more have had their dignity trampled on in the context of having to bring a coffin back to Ireland, after abortions carried out in the UK arising from fatal foetal abnormalities.
The reality is that all of the dancing on the head of a pin indulged in by the anti-choice mob is utterly pointless and stupid. The correct and humane thing to do is to more or less parallel in Ireland the abortion regime in the UK, but to improve it intelligently in any way that we can while we are at it. The desired effect: that no Irish woman should have to travel to the UK for a termination.
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Encouraging as the verdict of the Citizens’ Assembly was, the real battle is only beginning. It is important for Repeal the 8th campaigners to understand that. A referendum, we have been promised, will be held in 2018. So let me get one thing straight for the Government: under no circumstances should this be allowed to happen after colleges have closed or at the tail end of exams.
It must be held while students can have their voices heard fully and properly. After all, it is people of child-bearing age that will have to live with the results for the foreseeable future. In my view June is too late. Why not hold it in May?
But here is the real spanner. Once the date for the referendum is announced, unless effective measures are taken to prevent it, social media will be used and abused in Ireland, in precisely the manner that triggered the ‘Leave’ victory in the Brexit referendum in the UK; and the equally surprising victory of Donald Trump in the US.
We can expect attack ads of a kind never seen before in Ireland. It will, of course, all happen covertly. These ads are targeted at individuals. They fly below the radar. The government could try to legislate for it. But, really, the only entity that can monitor this activity is Facebook. But they have a track record of taking the money and running.
Which is why Hot Press is issuing a challenge to Facebook, here and now. • Can they please set out for us – and for the people of Ireland – what they intend to do, to ensure that the Irish political system, and in particular the result of the abortion referendum, will not be undermined and distorted as a result of lying, deceitful, deliberately misleading ads targeting individuals and groups, via Facebook?
• Can they also tell us what do they intend to do, to ensure that they do not facilitate campaigns of vilification or incitement to hatred against individuals on either side in the debate?
• Finally, can they tell their Irish users what they intend to do to guarantee two crucial things: (i) that the platform will not be used as a means for dangerous outside forces, of whatever kind, to subvert the democratic process here; (ii) that no ads purchased from outside the Irish democratic arena will be allowed in relation to the referendum on abortion, in order to ensure that Ireland is not effectively gamed by sinister, unaccountable forces outside the jurisdiction?
The truth is that, for management in Facebook,this should be easy. The old adage applies: “follow the money.” You know where it is coming from. You know who is being targeted. You can prevent abuse. So let’s do it...