Suicide, social media and getting stick from voters

Shane McEntee TD, who died this week.

The death by suicide of Irish parliamentarian Shane McEntee has prompted a slew of stroies in Sunday’s papers suggesting that bullying on social media was in some way a contributing factor – it seems cyberbulying is making it into the adult world.

In cases of suicide there is always an unseemly yet understandable rush to find out the why, and media in particular are always looking for a hook to hang their hat on.

Invariably, they pick it up and move on soon afterwards, leaving pelnty of their original questions unanswered.

Noticeable in Ireland’s Sunday newspapers is the conclusion that social media abuse hurled at McEntee is partially responsible, without ever really analysing why he was getting it.

The Sunday Independent reports that it was over the respite care cuts in the last budget, and if true McEntee essentially represents the first known victim of the latest installment of the austerity we flagellate ourselves with.

In that case, the ire should not be aimed at Twitter or Instagram, but at those who insist that our decent politicians – people like Shane McEntee, or many in the Labour party – are forced to vote against their principles, or walk the political desert.

That’s not to say that negativity directed at an individual on social media doesn’t have an effect.

I recall doing one TV show in Sweden which was put up on Youtube, where my contribution got dozens of positive comments. But the only one I recall is the one that said “he gets boring very quickly”.

It was like being punched in the stomach.

But as someone who works in media, I have to understand that the comment is not about my entire personality – the person making it has only seen me on Youtube, or maybe read some articles, so how could it be?

The commenter was criticising my performance, and that is fine – it goes with the territory. That I originally took it personally is my fault, not his or hers.

Personal abuse is different, and here is where the boundaries get blurred, especially in terms of politicians.

For instance, I think it’s entirely fair to refer to the Irish Labour Party’s elected representatives as spineless – how could one otherwise explain the abandonment of their principles as soon as they got into office?

That’s not to say that Pat Rabbitte isn’t a good father to his children, or that Joanna Tuffy is a bad person. It’s just that they are politically spineless, accepting policies that they promised their voters they wouldn’t.

Like the Arab Spring, social media has made our country more democratic. It provides instant feedback to our politicians about where they are going wrong, and indeed the few times they get it right.

But democracy demands that we be careful in our exercising of this power of communication – whatever the government does, we must play the ball, not the man.

Only then will can we demonstrate that it is the policies of this government that are ruining people’s lives, and not the reaction to them – on social media or otherwise.