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Online abuse is a way of silencing people – Chambers

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QUESTIONS Lisa Chambers

Mayo Senator Lisa Chambers speaks on her own experience of online abuse and its effect on political discourse

Anton McNulty

If you want to make your way in the world of politics, it is nearly mandatory of any prospective public representative to have a social media presence but, in particular, a Twitter account.
It is Donald Trump’s favourite form of communication and it is often the first port of call for public officials to make an announcement.
However, it has a nasty side where many, including public representatives, come under attack from ‘trolls’, ‘bots’ and, often, anonymous account holders who think nothing of hurling online abuse at their latest victim.
Mayo Senator Lisa Chambers is one of those politicians who has, for whatever reason, become a favourite of those who hurl online abuse and expects it whenever she puts a post online.
“Honestly if I put up a picture of puppies there would be someone with something negative to say about it,” she says frankly of what she has to endure.
She laughs when asked if she enjoys social media replying, ‘God no, not at all’ but it is a necessary tool in her line of work.
“There are pros and cons. In one way it is fantastic in that you get your own message out and it is a great way to connect with people. I get messages from people looking for help but obviously there is the whole nasty side to it.
“I find Facebook is less prone to that online abuse because people tend to have their names and pictures attached to their account and they are not anonymous. It is a nicer space to work in but Twitter is a horrible and nasty place with so many anonymous accounts. People have multiple accounts with the sole purpose just to abuse people and be really nasty.”
She admits the online abuse can be draining personally but is more worried about the effect it is having on political discourse in Ireland.
“I definitely think it [online abuse] is a way of controlling the debate and silencing people. It is an issue and in my own view it is impacting on political discourse. I know from talking to colleagues and young journalists, they do find that certain posts and stories you cover will get you a lot of hate and abuse. It does put people off speaking.
“You know that by speaking out on something you are going to get a massive amount of online abuse. You will probably think twice about doing it and from speaking to colleagues, they think very carefully before they post something because they just don’t want the hassle and prefer to keep the head down. I still speak my mind and say what I think but there are still certain posts where I know I will take hassle on this but I think it is important to be said.”

Striking the balance
Chambers is not a prolific user of Twitter, explaining that she only uses it for her work as she would be too afraid to contemplate putting anything personal on it. She only joined Twitter in 2012, a year after she first ran for the Dáil and believes that it played a massive role in the General Election last February. It was an election where Chambers came in for an inordinate amount of targeted online abuse and she lost her Dáil seat before winning a seat in the Seanad.
Despite the online abuse she says she did not think of walking away as she would not discourage others to not get involved.
“While there are difficult parts to the job it is still one of the most rewarding things you can do to represent your community, county and country and I would always encourage people to get involved and speak up for what is right.”
Her Fianna Fáil colleague James Lawless introduced a Social Media Transparency Bill in the last Dáil to safeguard against what is said and printed on social media platforms and is currently working on a similar bill. While welcoming it, Senator Chambers believes that for social media companies to be more accountable the legislation will have to come from a European level for it to be effective.
She admits she does not have the silver bullet to prevent online abuse but believes that leadership is needed to ensure it is not accepted as part and parcel of politics.
“I wouldn’t advise people to get a thick skin and deal with it because that is the wrong message. There is an element of people accepting that this is the world we live in now and part of politics. I don’t agree with that. We have to push back against it. I don’t think anybody should be subjected to personalised abuse or attacked online for doing their job. I don’t have a difficulty with someone challenging my views or work I’ve done or party policy, that is proper debate and political discourse but where it gets personalised, that shouldn’t be part of the job,” she said.