Political slander in the time of Facebook

BitDepth#982 for March 30, 2015

Dr Keith Rowley has stood on both ends of poorly substantiated attacks in Parliament.
Dr Keith Rowley has stood on both ends of poorly substantiated attacks in Parliament.

“I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”

― Margaret Thatcher

A week ago, I thought it prudent to invite the nation’s politicians to consider the tuning fork resonance that their more outrageous statements might have online in social media circles and more specifically, in the special interest echo chamber that Facebook has become.

That warning suggested that the middle-class voter, likely to be less undecided than uncommitted until the last possible moment, and generally active in largely underplotted and impossible to monitor social groupings and discussions on the service, would contemplate, for some time, the statements and intent of potential candidates on the campaign trail.

That was before Vernella Alleyne-Toppin, Minister in the Ministry of the People and Social Development, used Parliamentary privilege during the unusual motion of no confidence in Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley, to launch a character attack on a scale quite unprecedented in this country’s sittings of both Houses.

Mrs Alleyne-Toppin called on Dr Rowley to answer questions that were not just irrelevant to the nation’s business, but also called into question her judgement in the execution of her own responsibilities in a ministry created to address social injustices.

It was an attack so vile and upsetting that any of her colleagues who unequivocally sided with it risk being tarred with a political smear so indelible that it will prove difficult to remove even in the heat of the upcoming election campaign.

Mrs Alleyne-Toppin has since apologised, after a fashion, satisfying almost nobody that the more vulgar and unfortunate aspects of her statement, read from a prepared script, have been satisfactorily withdrawn.

I hold no brief for Dr Rowley, the subject of this mischambered attack, and have noted in this space my own concerns about his own Parliamentary attack, now known as emailgate, a matter that I’ve held since the first statement, was his accusation to prove.

Such bacchanalist fare, however, is protected by the freedoms afforded to politicians within the chambers of Parliament, but nowhere else.

To repeat the statements made by Mrs Alleyne-Toppin on a soapbox in Woodford Square or, indeed, in statuses or responses on Facebook is to risk legal censure at the very least.

That’s a truth that seems to elude Facebook commenters and it’s worth repeating for clarity.

It doesn’t matter if someone else says it. If you are recorded writing something libellous or circulating a video in which libel is being uttered, it becomes your statement and you are responsible for it.

As with a stolen mango, it doesn’t matter who picked it, who threw it over the fence or who put it in the bag. If a police officer appears and you have the bag of mangoes, you’re the thief.

Parliament will be prorogued soon and that privilege will disappear, along with the luxury of plain speaking without legal consequence.

The nation will, after that, be plunged into long dark months of innuendo, accusation and picong that look set to hallmark an election campaign that will be waged on the effectiveness of mutual broadsides aimed at character; warnings of impending economic doom should the wrong choices be made in the voting booth and bacchanal of the lowest order.

This will be no silly season, but a nasty one and vileness slung aloft rarely chooses its landing points with care.

Much of this will make its way onto the Internet generally and Facebook in particular. There will be sock puppets engaging you using fake profiles, pages and groups designed to ensnare specific interests and catnip aplenty prepared for anyone with either a ready temper or an axe to grind.

Expect screenshots, both real and faked to be circulated regularly, suspicious looking posts to show up with greater regularity and advertising aplenty.

The aggressive abundance of the campaign trail is about to appear on your computer screen, and it won’t just be pretty flags waving with vigor.

Be ready for it.