We don't need no regulation

Is there a need for greater regulation of how we express ourselves on the internet? Ironically, some of the best reasons for thinking that there isn’t are to be found in the sorts of pro-regulation articles which have recently appeared in the ‘traditional media’. (See, for a perfect example, Eamon Delaney’s latest offering on the Sunday Independent’s website here)

A common trope amongst these articles is the characterisation of people who post online as a collection of anonymous, bitter, cranks, pouring bile onto the internet from the dank recesses of their parents’ basements. Delaney sneers at commentators who “go by fearless nicknames like 'Gladiator 5' and 'Bosco” and describes politics.ie as “a hit-or-miss discussion board, with an often low standard of analysis, and childish name-calling among political opponents.”

If this is all beginning to look suspiciously familiar to you, hold that thought for the moment. Let’s continue to examine the case for increased regulation. We are told that the problem isn’t just that people online are rude or mean, it’s that they are often wrong. Delaney talks about the “cacophony” of the “lowest common denominator” and cites approvingly the words of Thomas Crosbie who says “The fact is that to generate good information carries a cost…It requires money. Unless you steal it like most new media companies do.”

It would be easy at this point to offer what philosophers call a “tu quoque” (which means “you, yourself, or “you too!”) argument, where we might simply say “Pot. Kettle. Black.” Replace the chair in the parents’ basement with the chair at an office desk and the differences between ‘Bosco’ and some journalists become harder to define. But such arguments are normally fallacious; after all, don’t we want to hold ourselves to a higher standard than our opponents?

Actually, in this case, the answer should be “No”. The problem with those who call for increased regulation is that they want to achieve a kind of equality across all media platforms: they want everyone to be held to the same standards, they point out that we hold the traditional media to higher standards than we do when it comes to online media, so they conclude that we should bring online media “up” to their standards.

Unfortunately for some journalists, it’s difficult to look down on people when you no longer occupy the moral high ground. Let’s dispense with the implication that people somehow don’t realise that what they read online is not subject to the same kind of scrutiny as what appears in a newspaper. Most people are not idiots. So why are some journalists so concerned that we might not be able to tell the difference?

The traditional media has given us everything from the phone-hacking scandals and paparazzi culture to the obsession with celebrities and the characterisation of politics as a kind of sport. Ten years before most people could blame the internet, the Sun was screaming “Freddy Starr Ate My Hamster”. Along the way, traditional media has also provided a vital public service, but sometimes this can seem the exception rather than the rule.

With traditional barriers removed, with everyone with an opinion now having the means to publish online, journalists now need a way to explain why what they do is somehow more valuable than the rantings of some anonymous commentator. The fear is that people will come to view traditional media as Dorothy viewed the Wizard of Oz when the curtain was stripped back: that all the traditional news media consists of is glorified bloggers with delusions of grandeur.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Traditional media, for now at least, has managed to hold on to an air of prestige which does not apply to most online sources. There is still time for journalists to climb back up and reclaim the high ground, and there’s no reason why the online world should seek to follow them. This is because we all benefit by having different spheres of media; the online world provides a democratising force for the dissemination of opinions, and the traditional sphere allows us to access information which (ideally) we can have a high degree of confidence in. Each kind of media can serve a useful and complementary function. By demanding that both spheres be held to the same standards, traditional journalists risk simply giving up on any potentially legitimate claim to superior quality by dragging everyone else down to their level. For journalists, the best way to show the value of the traditional media isn’t by attacking online media, but by setting an example through their journalism themselves. They could start by not publishing shoddy articles that trade on uninformed clichés and half-baked, hyperbolic arguments to support blatantly self-serving positions.


Image top: Leo Reynolds.