Facebook and Twitter immune to the damage they facilitate

An Cailín Rua

HURTFUL The abuse thrown at Aidan O’Shea online following the Mayo v Fermanagh game was not acceptable writes Anne-Marie Flynn. Pic: Sportsfile

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

As you read this, it’s likely that the furore surrounding Aidan O’Shea’s penalty claim in the Mayo v Fermanagh game will have finally subsided. But what a few days it was for Mayo football supporters, and indeed, the man himself.
In case you’ve been living under a rock since last Saturday week, Mayo’s talismanic midfielder/half-forward/full-forward/whatever-you’re-having-yourself was granted what the majority of the ‘neutral’ viewing public felt was a very soft penalty versus Fermanagh at a crucial stage of the game. And the fallout from the incident has been nothing short of phenomenal.
In particular, the amount of online ‘discussion’ has been noteworthy; in a fast-moving space that is not known for its longevity or attention span, a week later the debate rages on, fuelled by a stream of national media op-eds on the incident.
We also had the not-so-measured analysis of the holier-than-thou RTÉ Sunday Game panellists who appear to have conveniently forgotten their own playing infractions in their race to don the halo. Don’t worry lads, the rest of us remember.
Meanwhile, Aidan O’Shea, I assume, got up on Monday morning, went to work and got on with his day job, like most of our amateur footballers do. I hope he stayed away from Facebook for the week. And I hope he didn’t log into his twitter account. In fact, for his own sake I hope he threw his phone in the river, weighed down with a brick.
But instead, he’ll likely have seen the hundreds, the thousands of comments on social media, many addressed directly to him, labelling him in turn (take a deep breath) a ‘diver’, a ‘cheat’, a ‘diving b******d’, a ‘useless p***k’ and quite regularly, a ‘c**t’. A few hardy individuals even generously took time away from picking their bellybutton fluff to comment on an old Instagram photo of him and his young daughter to offer their opinion.

Now, I’m sure Aidan O’Shea is big and bold enough to shrug it off and get on with the job in hand and he certainly doesn’t need me to defend him, but he is not alone in being the recipient of vile online abuse that can have devastating consequences - for everyone, apart from the perpetrator. We’ve seen it with sports figures before and many other public figures, but anyone is at risk. It appears that you can say pretty much anything you like on social media without any consequence – and boy, do people say it.
It’s hard to comprehend how these people, who in their photographs appear like normally functioning adults, can detach themselves from the viciousness of their words, divest themselves of the responsibility that comes with ‘free speech’ and disregard the potential consequences of abuse.
What baffles above all in this race to the bottom is the lack of accountability enjoyed by these media platforms. I couldn’t call someone a ‘c**t’ in this newspaper, and for good reason. I imagine there would be pretty strong consequences for both me and the paper if I did. Yet individuals can dish out torrents of online abuse, and Facebook and Twitter get off, scot-free?
The hypocrisy is strong here. Many of these people are parents, who I’m sure would be horrified if their child was being bullied, or was bullying others. Indeed we all know that cyberbullying is now a major problem for young people, and we’re mostly shocked by it, but is it any wonder it happens when grown adults think it is acceptable to call someone they don’t know a ‘c**t’ on Facebook or Twitter?
In a leaked memo in 2015, Twitter’s chief executive acknowledged that the company ‘sucks at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform, and we’ve sucked at it for years’. Over a year later, they still suck. Say or do something the mob doesn’t like, and you’re fair game. Defamation is problematic, but abuse is fine, and the platforms - Facebook, Twitter or others - don’t care who gets hurt.
The tired old ‘free speech’ spiel doesn’t wash, either. Free speech brings consequences and responsibilities, not least the onus to at least try to act like a civilised human being. Not just in the real world, but in the virtual one too.