How Could Ireland Do This

Shocked. If there’s one word that dominated the 9th of November this year, it was “shocked”. It reared its head in Facebook posts and tweets, accompanying the wave of disappointment that washed over Ireland’s youth as they learned of Donald Trump’s victory. They didn’t expect this, they didn’t think it could ever happen. Cries came from all corners of social media as they screamed in anguish “How could America do this?”

Late February 2016, the results of the Irish General Election are streaming in. The traditional central pillars of the country’s politics, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, are battling head to head to be the Dail’s largest party. Smaller groups like AAA-PBP and the Social Democrats pick up a couple of seats, but not many. Social media seems to be stuck on one word again: shocked. “How could Ireland do this?”

Tories winning the 2015 UK elections? Shocked. Brexit passing? Shocked. If Marine Le Pen becomes the French President next year, as she very well could? You can bet your house that somehow Facebook will find a way to remain shocked.

All this seems to point towards a young, Irish electorate that is woefully uninformed on news and politics. Being caught out once is understandable, being surprised every single time means there’s a deeper lying issue. In an age of instant access to the world, an overwhelming amount of available information and unlimited space for discussion; how did this come about?

“Not many 18 year olds have time to consider how the courts work when they’re busy stressing over Shakespeare”

A starting point may be the lack of importance the Irish education system places on civics in secondary schools. While CSPE is mandatory for students at Junior Cycle, pupils have claimed that the class is often treated as a free period to do their homework in, as a subject that doesn’t actually matter. It bears questioning, how much can teenagers really learn about how their country works when they’re being given examination marks for identifying a picture of Bono?

Up until this year there wasn’t even the opportunity for young people to continue CSPE to Senior Cycle. Studying Irish is, of course, still important enough to make it mandatory for access to third-level education. But civics? Understanding an area that affects the lives of every single citizen of the nation? Nah. Don’t need that.

Thankfully, someone in the Department of Education has come to their senses and, from September this year, Politics and Society will be an examinable Leaving Certificate subject. For the first time, the education system will allow the country’s youth to treat politics as an important part of their academic learning, something that is vital when you consider the all-encompassing nature that examinations now play in their lives. Right now, not many 18 year olds have time to consider how the courts work when they’re busy stressing over Shakespeare.

Surely though, in a world of instant access to all the information you could ever need, young people should be able to immerse themselves in news, opinion and fact. So why aren’t they? Well, the issue seems to be that they are. Social media has become the prime source of news for many of its users, its ability to provide content has no match. Its ability to provide accurate content, however, is coming under increasing scrutiny.

“We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves”

Barack Obama stated: “If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.” The topic of fake news on Facebook is burning hard in the minds of politicians and media gurus at the moment. The awe inspiring extent of lies, exaggeration and potentially slanderous material that masqueraded itself as news in the run up to the US Presidential Election can only be surmised in one word: shocking.

In the last two months of the race, fake news out-clicked real, sourced, edited content by a staggering 1.4 million engagements according to Buzzfeed. That’s astounding. That’s worrying. Headlines pop into people’s feeds and then into their heads faster than they can process, immediately forming opinions before continuing to scroll. If the article isn’t opened and read then it doesn’t matter what the content was, the idea is already planted. Inception isn’t just a movie you know.

Mark Zuckerberg has, in the last week, committed to clamping down on the misinformation polluting his network, but his insistence on neutrality is damaging Facebook’s image. Speaking on the matter he said “We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.” They appear terrified of taking a stance on editorial process in case it alienates users.

Clicks mean everything in Facebook-land, clicks mean opening pages, opening pages means loading new ads and ads mean money. Imposing an editorial process would reduce the amount of content available, thus reducing the amount of clicks available. It’s a simple formula really, if Zuckerberg decides to take responsibility for what spreads on his behemoth of a forum then he loses cash. So why would he?

“Never the twain shall meet”

Of course, fake news is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to social media’s issues. Much has been made lately of the segregation occurring before our eyes, people being divided into their “bubbles” and kept there. Sorting algorithms pushing news only at the people who want to read it is a serious problem that is further breaking societies across the world into two camps; left against right, liberal against conservative. Never the twain shall meet.

Balance is the key to good politics, but as of this moment in time both sides have retreated to the far ends of the see-saw and are jumping up and down, shouting whilst covering their ears. They don’t want to listen, they want it their way and they want it now. Adversaries have become enemies, not to be trusted or reasoned with. Compromise might very well be dead.

Is there any way to fix this? Perhaps not completely, but steps can be made. Education is always the soundest long term solution and the introduction of Senior Cycle politics will hopefully lead to a more rounded, knowledgeable opinion for our politicians and activists of tomorrow. Social media’s influence may be beyond repair, with their determination to take a back seat to content, but at least the recent debate on the topic should help by alerting people to the dangers and making them think more critically as they browse.

The next great indicator of where we stand in this country will be the referendum on the 8th Amendment. The issue has peaked interest in the nation’s younger generation and, like the Marriage Equality referendum before it, has captured the imagination of those who would otherwise steer well clear of politics. The discourse surrounding the debate will show if anything has been learned from the catastrophe of 2016; if it’s painted as misogynists versus baby-killers then little progress will be made. It’s time for both sides to offer an olive branch and talk things out.