Fidelma Healy-Eames: Social Media Victim or Offender?

In the age of social media and personal brand building, even the simplest mistake can open a person up to wide scale scrutiny. The instant nature of social media and non-stop feeds means the pressure to be up to date at all times inevitably leads to some errors. Whether it’s a grammar slip up – using “their” when it should be “they’re” can apparently strip a person of all integrity and credibility – or a poor attempt at spelling; such actions can result in unwarranted abuse directed at the offender. While its extensiveness often depends on whether those in question are in the public eye or not, it’s worth mentioning that online abuse is not exclusive.

Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames has found herself, yet again, to be a victim of the “keyboard warriors.” Early last month, during a debate regarding the Harmful and Malicious Electronic Communications Bill, the independent Senator spoke of the huge reliance on Wi-Fi use today, and how people often ask in restaurants for the “wiffy code.”

“Young people live on and live for Wi-Fi. That is the first question when you go into a restaurant, ‘Do you have the wiffy code?’”

Her use of the term caused uproar on social media, which she claims has proven the point she was making in the Seanad regarding the potentially damaging use of electronic communications. “The response was very definitely intending to demean and belittle me. Imagine this type of an onslaught was at a very vulnerable person,” she said in an interview for The Anton Savage Show.

The legislation regarding abusive behaviour online has been put forward by Labour Senator Lorraine Higgins, who had also been on the receiving end of abuse and death threats online.

Fidelma Healy-Eames - HeadStuff.org
Fidelma Healy-Eames

The bill includes a two tier system where it would be an offence to share any message that may incite someone to self-harm or to persistently cause anxiety or distress. A guilty verdict could result in a jail time of up to twelve months or a €5,000 fine.

Senator Higgins said “there needs to be balance for both sides because at the moment there are impacts for the victims of abuse online but none for the perpetrator so in the interest of fairness it needs to be more than one.”

Following the out-pour on social media, Healy-Eames claimed that having recently been in France, she “intentionally used the French pronunciation, not expecting in the least to cause a ripple (…) I had used the word Wi-Fi first, but it is sad really and disappointing that there has been a lot of selective editing done to ridicule me.”

This is not the first time the Senator has made a gaffe however. Back in March she tweeted that she hoped Mother’s and Father’s Day would continue to be celebrated in Ireland after the Same Sex Marriage Referendum, as it had apparently “been banned in some US states,” which she also deemed as “political correctness gone mad.” The post resulted in both her name and #pcgonemad trending nationally.

She later admitted to having made an error, claiming that “I said in some US states but I meant schools.”

It is unclear whether holding your hands up and admitting your mistake is better than claiming you were speaking a foreign language, but what is clear is the onslaught of negativity that wades in should a mistake be made. Is making a blip simply unacceptable in the time of the personal public relation mill that is social media?

Keyboard warriors - HeadStuff.org
Some keyboard warriors

Given Fidelma’s past hiccups, it could be argued that the simple fact that she is a political figure makes her even more open to scrutiny. But Healy-Eames’s case is certainly not unique.

Three years ago, during the tennis competition, an English 21-year-old tweeted, “Is Wimbledon always held in London?” What followed was a torrent of abuse and mockery which led to her actually deleting her account.

Alongside the pressure to remain blip-free on social media, there is also the very real element of competition. Whether it be the need to have the perfect Instagrammable life full of gorgeous sunset views, dreamy holidays and a delicious long-winded drink with your name on it, or the need to join in on the mob mentality, making the nastiest attack or funniest tweet – the desire to appear ‘successful’ online is constantly present.

I recently interviewed psychologist Colman Noctor, who believes that

“it often becomes more about who has the quickest wit, or who can be the smartest, and the person in question soon gets forgotten. Obviously the victim of trolling is going to take it personally, but sometimes they might be more of a victim of a ‘social one-upmanship,’ as opposed to the abuse actually being about them.”

He also added that “the aggressive element and mob mentality encourages narcissistic behaviour and can be found in trolling.”

French restaurant - HeadStuff.org
A French restaurant where one might ask for the “wiffy” code

A politician making such a gaffe will inevitably lead to some scrutiny – there’s no doubt about that.  There’s also no doubt about the fact that much of the online reaction to “wiffy” was aimed directly at Fidelma Healy-Eames. However, it’s fair to say some of the contributors on social media probably had little, or no, knowledge of who Fidelma even was; let alone the context of her use of the word.

A decade of wide-scale use of social media has passed, and although the internet’s use is not limited to criticisms and scrutiny, it certainly helps those who wish to do so. If an opportunity arises to pass judgment on, or to ridicule, another then you can bet it certainly will not be passed up on.

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