Between Helen McEntee’s Hate Speech Bill and the Media Regulation Bill, the Irish government has ramped up its efforts to contain online political dissent. The coalition government’s continued mismanagement of political crises has contributed to a growing public discontent in the form of protests such as those in East Wall. The soft-skinned behaviour of Irish politicians and their complete disconnection from the concerns of ordinary Irish people is perhaps best evident through their personal experiences online.
In an interview with the Irish Independent, Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond revealed he has blocked over 6,000 twitter users. Richmond’s subsequent comments contextualise the government’s self-perception of its online censorship policies:
“If someone disagrees with you over policy, that’s their right, but if someone wants to make fun of your appearance or be really mean, you have to delete, block, and move on.”
Online backlash from digital detractors against those responsible for propagating vehemently unpopular policies is an inevitability that comes with holding political office, but rather than simply blocking users, the state has resorted towards legislating in favour of online censorship. Such a political manoeuvre will naturally entail the clustering of political disagreements under the label of “offensive” content so as to quell opposition.
If Varadkar’s scandal in recent weeks is indicative of anything, it is that Fine Gael need censorship not just for the sake of defending themselves from online harassment and political opposition – but to shield the electorate from the illicit escapades of their personal lives, lest their vote share be harmed in the next general election. McEntee’s position as Minister of Justice in spearheading such hate speech legislation is a probable indicator that these policies are largely products of self-interested Fine Gael TDs.
The personal motivations behind such a policy among Ireland’s political classes crosses the partisan divide, with Fine Gael’s new legislation amounting to a political volley straight into the Shinners’ court. With the likely possibility of a Sinn Fein government in the not-distant future, it is remarkable that the coalition government has behaved so frighteningly stupid that in providing the opposition with the necessary legal mechanisms for wholesale political persecution.
Though the government has proven itself no ally to Irish people, we should try to understand our politicians as they perceive themselves. It must be reiterated, as Aristotle prefaces in his Nicomachean Ethics, that “every skill and every inquiry, and similarly every action and rational choice, is thought to aim at some good.”
Regardless of the reality that the state has paved the path towards the integration of Ireland into a global utopian pipe-dream, its helmsmen perceive this to be an immutable good. The cooperation with the ‘international community’ and lax asylum laws advocated for by the government is demonstrative of their implicit fidelity to a progressive understanding of politics that is fundamentally irreconcilable with the ‘good’ that is actually needed by the Irish people.
These censorship laws are designed to prevent the state’s grasp from slipping on public discourse and are perhaps indicative that Fine Gael is confident in its future electoral performance. If the introduction of such legislation is not pursued with a mind for oneself to utilise and to keep out of opposition hands, it is tantamount to political suicide. Is the government naïve enough to believe that the Shinners won’t use their own legislation against them? The state’s lack of concern in this regard is almost certainly a product of the mutual understanding that the prime target of this legislation is their common ideological enemy, the “far-right”. However, once courtroom proceedings begin for newly-branded “hate criminals”, it is all too easy for the subjectivity within the state’s vague statute books to be extended to others.
The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill acts to expand upon the criminal legislation proposed by providing the government with a formalised digital interventionism in the form of a Media Commission and an Online Safety Commissioner.
In its preface, the legislation includes reference to the substantial help provided by consultation with NGOs, companies and other governmental bodies in its formulation. The state’s continued cooperation with NGOs has included provisions to facilitate their involvement in the reporting of supposed “harmful content.”
One of the many offence-specific categories outlined in the bill is the prohibition of “online content by which a person bullies or humiliates another person.” The broadness of “humiliation” as a term, and the elements of human subjectivity in its perception, are clear. Given that the Online Safety Commissioner is to be granted powers to block and fine websites for non-compliance with such regulations, the state has committed substantially to its new policy of digital censorship.
Within the Irish government, Fine Gael have specifically organised to use state apparatus to improve politicians’ experiences online and minimise their contact with political dissent or ideological critique. Ostensibly for the sake of protecting the privacy of regime politicians and the mental health of the Irish youth, these bills will have far-reaching consequences for Irish politics in the coming years.