Nobody who cares about democracy, decency and safety could argue that antagonistic, spiteful protests – in some cases involving people who spout homophobic and racist abuse – outside Leo Varadkar’s home are normal or acceptable. They are ugly and rotten. But they are not necessarily a consequence of general and genuinely held criticisms of the Tánaiste or his government’s policies. Most rational people, even if they’re really angry, even if they voice their criticisms of politicians on social media in the most robust ways, are not going to do something as extreme as turn up at someone’s house spouting nonsense.
When it comes to the slide in the standard of discourse (or perhaps that slide becoming more visible thanks to social media), we have to be smart about discerning what is a genuine red flag, and what is a reflection – however fun-house-mirrored – of a slice of authentic public sentiment. All of this, of course, is underscored by how social media’s algorithms push people towards polarisation. Last week, Twitter admitted that it amplifies more tweets from right-wing politicians and news outlets. The right is very angry, and anger is good business for social media companies.