I’ve been spending Christmas in Ireland with my wife’s Irish family.
But for one family here, they spent Christmas Eve burying a father who supposedly died from online trolling.
Shane McEntee was an unassuming but generally well liked junior minister in the Irish Government.
But his death is being sited as possibly the first case of a politician dying at the hands of excessive online abuse.
And his suicide could now have enormous ramifications for free speech in Ireland and beyond.
It all started with an interview with the Irish Sunday Times two weeks ago. McEntee, a minister of state, was asked his thoughts on one of the Budget’s most controversial decisions – a 20% cut to the respite carers allowance, reducing it from €1,700 to €1,375.
The minister said: “I agree carers have to get away for a break but you could stay in a top hotel in Ireland for €700 a week. The grant is still high, it’s still at 2006 levels. People just have to get on with it – it’s not going to change.”
A ‘clarification’ interview on his local radio station did nothing to stop a torrent of abuse and comments coming McEntee’s way. The radio station read out several online comments, some anonymous, with one saying: “May God strike you and your Government down.”
Vicious comments then appeared on his Facebook page, with two other Government colleagues also receiving abuse on social media.
Tom Barry TD was told in a comment on his Facebook page: “I’m going to murder you and you deserve to be murdered.”
McEntee, who took the abuse very badly, woke up last week at his home, took his dogs for a walk and then killed himself.
Many at his funeral on Christmas Eve, including his family and fellow politicians, called for action. Former PM John Bruton argued broadcasters should not read out social media comments unless they had their full name and address.
And now it’s been announced that Ireland’s Oireachtas Committee (the equivalent of a UK parliamentary select committee) on Transport and Communications is to hold a special meeting to examine the role of social media in public debate.
The committee will investigate whether there is a need for regulation or legislation of public comments.
It will be chaired by Tom Hayes – one of the very politicians who claims to have been a victim of trolling.
I know many public figures who’ve been trolled in the past. The comments I read were very hurtful and extremely personal. But what made it worse for them was that other people could see it too.
Before social media, it would be a personal one-on-one attack. A green inked poison pen letter, a phone call, dog excrement through the letter box.
If they wanted to reach a wider audience, maybe a call to a journalist or a letter to the paper. But then it would be in the hands of the editor as to whether other people saw it.
But social media and self-publishing amplified the criticism, made it instantaneous, relentless and shareable.
As we’ve seen in the UK with Tom Daley and several footballers, these highly personal attacks on social media are best challenged and passed to the police.
In Daley’s case, his million plus Twitter followers acted as moderators and urged the police to act. As a result, his troll was arrested and spoken to.
But in that specific case the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions declared posting one-off offensive tweets will not lead to being charged. Only those who carry out a persistent campaign or post truly threatening comments will face a charge.
This seems a pretty sensible approach to take and one the Irish should consider.
Ireland’s politicians really should resist the urge to use legislation to restrict public comment of their elected representatives.
Pushing for change after a high profile and emotional case often generates the threat of bad legislation.
Consider the UK riots of 2011. Social media got the blame from some for being the platform rioters used to organise their smash and grabs. It turned out it was more likely to have been Blackberry messaging.
But that didn’t stop David Cameron, egged on by Louise Mensch, to float the idea of blocking social media in times and areas of unrest.
But without it, we wouldn’t have seen the remarkable response – thousands of people coming together offline to make good through the hash tag #riotcleanup.
Social media has also made politicians more accountable and approachable to the concerns of the public.
Witness the many UK Budget U Turns from the the #pastytax to the #caravantax. It’s an instant focus group and the Twitter top trends an increasingly importer sentiment indicator for senior politicians.
Irish politicians should think long and hard before tackling social media as it would be taking on the very people who elect them.
Let the people self-moderate and if messages are truly threatening and actionable, report them to the police.
It would be far better to train politicians and public figures to deal with online abuse.
If criminal, report it. If just plain nasty, then publicly challenge them in the timelines and on the Facebook pages.
Trolls are like any other bullies. They hate being stood up to.
Social media is making politicians better public servants.
But in return, the public must recognise that they are only human and criticism is ten times more worse when others get to see it.
Conversation and education, not regulation and legislation, are the ways forward.