CHALLENGES Rose Conway-Walsh says social media presents a lot of challenges for teenagers like her sons Anthony and Peter in terms of what they should and should not do online. Rose is pictured with her sons after she was elected as a TD earlier this year. Pic: Conor McKeown
AS a Dáil deputy, spokeswoman on higher education, a mother of teenagers and native of a vastly rural area of Co Mayo, Rose Conway-Walsh is very aware of the positives and negatives of social media. From the shenanigans around the American election to the ongoing fiasco of Brexit, she holds strong opinions on its pivotal role in forming and, indeed, manipulating opinion. However, she also recognises the positive role it can play in society, particularly in the case of isolated older people removed from regular interactions with their extended families and friends because of the Covid-19 restrictions.
“Social media platforms can be a power for good where they give voice to many people who would be otherwise unheard,” the Sinn Féin TD told The Mayo News. “They can speak truth to power and challenge the status quo. However, the same platforms can also prove to be dangerous in rapidly spreading false untested information leaving recipients of that information to be misinformed and misled.”
Citing the Brexit referendum of 2016, whose fallout still hangs in the balance for trade between Ireland, the UK, the EU and, indeed, globally, Deputy Conway-Walsh said: “It is well documented that social media algorithms were used to portray what I believe were untrue and often racist messages to spread fear and to target sections of the electorate who were likely to respond to those messages by voting ‘Yes’ to Brexit.”
“It is even clearer in recent weeks how the use of social media in the US elections demonstrated how people in places of power with millions of followers can communicate messages at the press of a button.
“I was pleased to see Twitter constrain some of Mr Trump’s messages regarding the unsubstantiated claims of election fraud,” she said.
As a regular user of social media – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – Ms Conway-Walsh said it was ‘really useful for letting constituents know about the issues she was working on and to solicit their feedback’. “Many of my contributions in the Dáil and to committees as well as to radio and TV interviews are on social media. I hope it keeps people up to date on my work on their behalf,” she said.
However, she stressed that ‘Government must legislate to hold social media platforms accountable for hate crimes and bullying perpetuated via their platforms’.
“Obviously, the perpetrator is responsible for the crime but the platform must take some responsibility for facilitating the crime to be committed or the bullying behaviour to impact the victim.”
She told The Mayo News that her experience as a mother brought the dangers into stark focus.
“As a mother of teenagers, I am deeply concerned about cyberbullying, digital bullying and online bullying. Rules must be imposed. But the way they are imposed is key to their success. We must have clear, concise messages so that they understand bullying behaviour and the impact it has on the victim. I do not want my sons to be subject to bullying behaviour nor to inflict bullying behaviour. I need them to understand that sharing something they may think is a bit of fun can have a distressing impact on the recipient. My fear, as a parent of older teenagers, is that I am mostly not privy to their online activity. So, it’s getting the balance between respecting their privacy and ensuring they are safe as well as them having an awareness of their own behaviours. Parents and schools must work together to cultivate a culture of respect, tolerance and acceptable behaviour.”
On the other hand, she welcomes how social media has helped to support lonely and isolated people, particularly since the pandemic struck last March.
“Social media has proven to be a lifeline for many people who have not been able to have physical contact with their families and friends. Many people who are never thought of themselves as IT literate are now experts at Facetime and Zoom. Grandparents and grandchildren I know are getting immense joy from having regular visual contact with each other. Traditional high emigration in counties like Mayo makes this imperative in a pandemic where families are scattered all over the world.”