The Gist: Office Politics and Pink Slime

A new Taoiseach promises to keep making promises and pink slime lurks in our phones. This is The Gist.

The Gist: Office Politics and Pink Slime

Leadership upheavals generally signal a change in direction for a country or a political party. A new leader topples an old one because they are doing things badly or have just come to the end of the line. But this month, we've seen Leo Varadkar step down as Taoiseach and be replaced by Simon Harris as the leader of Fine Gael with barely a ripple bestirring the surface of our political waters. And, in Northern Ireland, the DUP saw the abrupt departure of Jeffrey Donaldson for reasons it is prudent not to discuss in the light of potential future court cases.

Neither change was brought about by action from rivals. Northern Ireland's departure is potentially profoundly significant, but it is too early to examine.

The departure of Leo Varadkar just seems to have been the decision of someone tired of the whole political circus. He just didn't fancy doing the job any more (a position we should welcome, given how often politicians fail to recognise when they have passed the point where they offer a net positive). In effect, the Taoiseach chose resignation, in every sense of the word.

His replacement by Simon Harris, although it had the superficial form of a significant political event, in that the country had a new Taoiseach, really amounts to no more than a bit of office politics within the Fine Gael party. Only if the new incumbent does something fresh will we have anything to assess. The one thing he has indicated to date is his wish to be seen as a 'Law and Order' politician. Fine Gael's history suggests what is meant by this is less about addressing society's problems in order to remove the root causes of crime and disorder and more about giving the institution of An Garda Síoichana uncritical support. This impulse previously resulted in the premature end to the careers of two Fine Gael Ministers for Justice and successive Garda Commissioners. If Simon Harris' campaign speeches turn out to be reflected in his actions, we may yet look back on his election as the return of a uniquely blueshirted version of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Stony grey soil, banks of youth burgled

Whatever about office politics, electoral politics still looms large. The resounding referendum defeats by the government (spectacularly misread as a lurch to the right as opposed to a continuation of the electorate's determination not to be taken for granted) are hardly in the rearview mirror. And yet, up loom the local and European elections.

We have had an unhappy recent example of just how destablising impending elections are to policymakers who fear the opprobium of their voters. The Nature Restoration Law, a critical piece of the EU's climate and environmental response was scuppered by the refusal of enough governements of the EU, represented in the EU Council, to sign off on the law they had already previously approved and which had been tortuously passed by the elected EU parliament.

In the EU, farmers may be the most organised and longstanding lobby group, with a voice at every government table as well as deep roots lobbying at an EU level. But it was the eruption in the Netherlands of a newly-minted Farmer's party (the BBB, founded by those famously horny-handed children of the soil, a journalist and two marketing executives) which really unsettled those facing election.

Whether the pieces align after this years' elections to allow them to come back and drag efforts to preserve the ecology of the entire continent across the line is apparently in the hands of an electorate who may or may not even be thinking about it at the time of voting.

Pink Slime and other information infestations

Democracies are in the midst of a disinformation crisis. Disinformation is better understood as a means of attack, and not a single purpose or action. There are multiple actors at work- from states hostile to democracy itself to commercial entities seeking to profit from socially harmful action, to fringe domestic political actors trying to puff themselves up to appear larger than they are.

These disparate groups sometimes co-operate or echo each other's positions, as their goals frequently align along nilhilistic spectrums. Unscrupulous, unsophisticated or just opportunistic actual elected officials can take up their positions and advance them too- either to tap into the power of the disinformation networks for personal gain or because they mistake the noise for genuine voters voices or because they given them cover for expressing pre-existing opinions they otherwise would have kept hidden.

Welcome to the world of Pink Slime.

Pink slime, named after the goop added to cheap US burgers to bulk them out instead of meat, is propaganda which takes the superficial form of journalism. In the US, the collapse of local journalism has seen networks of these ‘smear and jeer‘ sites pretending to be news outlets spring up in their place.

Here in Ireland, we saw disinformation networks assiduously cultivated during the Covid-dislocation.

AI text generation will allow even the most unsophisticated jackboot jackeen to generate vast swathes of websites peddling anything from general despair (everything and everyone has been corrupted by a conspiracy) to hyper-specific untruths about people’s own communities. No bylines, no authors even. Just a website template and a few minutes at a textbox describing what odour of bullshit is desired.

This is the sort of thing that, in another world, we might have expected the Online Safety Commissioner of the Coimisiún na Meán to be able to address. Sadly, it seems that body is overwhelmed already. Readers will recall they said they were too busy with other, bigger media outlets to give an interview to the Gist. An FOI confirmed that tidal wave of interview requests, the tsunami of talking that buried them in the first 19 days of the year, was, in fact, 12 interviews.

And now they’ve also confirmed they’ve received 1,300 pieces of feedback on their public consultation on getting minors to send selfies to porn sites.

The previous record was 55.

I think we may have reached the limits of that infrastructure pretty quickly.

So, instead, we should try to strengthen and attend to trustworthy journalism. If, as Gresham’s law has it, Bad Money drives out the Good then similarly untrustworthy journalism will undermine the reliable. We should expect city managers eager to give interviews to local newspapers, or Ministers to agree to firm-but-fair interviews by good faith actors.

The far right has realised that its primary rival for votes is not the Government parties but Sinn Féin. in response, they have been running an unrelenting smear campaign against SF. It is darkly ironic that, after years of openly hostile coverage from Dublin’s media, the Sinn Féin party desperately needs a strong and reliable journalism ecosystem as a counterbalance to noisy assertions equating racism with patriotism.

We’ll have to see if SF can wrestle themselves to the ground and hold them selves steady in the face of unending abuse by Conor McGregor Cosplayers. (Why else do they all have such terrible beards?) A media that asks hard-but-fair questions is still liable to be unpopular with parties approaching power. The questions are still hard.

Similarly, exchequer funding for RTÉ (as a fixed percentage of tax-take) is not necessarily a crowd-pleasing policy. We may need to wait until after the votes are counted before we see that sort of thing.

But if we’re to avoid Pink Slime becoming a major part of our media diet, both readers and those they are reading about will have to consciously choose more nutritious options, however unpalatable they may find them in the short term.

An exciting first for the Gist as it was cited in a report for the Irish Law Times.