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Facebook gets the Althing treatment

Moraig Lyall speaking at the debate on Friday night. Photo: Karen Fraser

THIS week saw the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web and the last of this season’s Althing debates proposed the suitably topical motion: ‘Facebook brings out the worst in people’. The year’s debating season ended on a high on Friday, with an evening of thought-provoking and lively discussion, writes Genevieve White.

A brief AGM kicked off the evening’s proceedings and then the initial straw poll was taken. Both sides had everything to play for, with six voting for the motion, six against and 12 undecided. Andrew Halcrow chaired the debate, introducing the four speakers: Moraig Lyall and Ryan Taylor were speaking for the motion; Jonathan Wills and Johan Adamson against.

Moraig Lyall began by giving examples of ways in which unscrupulous politicians, terrorists and business corporations exploit Facebook to meet their own ends. She argued that Facebook, rather than creating evil, merely exposes the age-old vices which lurk within us anyway.

She went on to list the seven deadly sins, providing entertaining illustrations of Facebook behaviour for each one. The wry laughs of recognition from the audience showed that Lyall’s examples of modern-day online sins were spot on.

Lyall concluded on a serious note. She referred to the news of the mass shooting in New Zealand, pointing out that Facebook allowed the gunman to livestream his heinous act to a global audience. Evil, Lyall argued, exists at the core of our society, but “Facebook provides it with the oxygen it needs to grow and spread”.

Jonathan Wills was the first speaker against the motion. He began by looking at things from a historical perspective, arguing that there had been “a lot of bad behaviour” since time began, and that Facebook was simply “a platform” through which people communicate; nothing more nor less.

Wills recalled the “moral panic” of 1969, when local clergymen lamented the lowering of public standards due to television. Back then it was felt by some that TV “brought out the worst in people”.

Referring to his own personal use of the platform Wills spoke about keeping in touch with far-flung family members and reminiscing about old times with friends from the past. As a member of several Facebook groups, Wills vouched for the good conduct displayed by members, adding: “I’ve never seen any bad behaviour in ‘Wooden Boats Built in Shetland’.”

Wills also mentioned the generosity oft seen on Facebook, citing the online community’s reaction to the devastating fire in Fair Isle and commending the “heart-warming response which could not have happened without Facebook”.

There was one downside to Facebook, Wills allowed, and this was the cat pictures. “But you don’t have to look at them,” he was quick to add.

The second speaker for the motion was Ryan Taylor, who delivered a persuasive analysis on some of Facebook’s pernicious features. Describing Facebook as “informational junk food” he contrasted its “nastiness” and “weirdness” with the original altruistic aims of the World Wide Web.

Facebook, Taylor claimed, has had a devastating effect on friendship. He said: “Facebook is the platform which allows you to stay in touch with people you don’t like enough to meet in real life”.

Continuing his catalogue of Facebook peeves, Taylor touched on click-bait, the humble brag and virtue signalling, ending with a scathing attack on emojis, or as he would have it: “humanity’s last language.”

Johan Adamson was the final speaker of the evening. A committed Facebook user, Johan spoke of the many positives Facebook brought to her life, including virtual Scrabble, birthday reminders and the ability to be in touch with her children.

A keen campaigner for women’s involvement in Lerwick Up Helly Aa, Adamson said she had found it an incredibly useful way of spreading awareness and communicating with like-minded people.

After a break for tea and home-bakes, there were a number of comments from the floor.

Gordon Dargie pointed out that the Nazi party had managed to get plenty of support without Facebook. He added that Facebook perhaps “exposes” the worst in us, rather than “brings it out”.

Barbara Fraser felt that the vast majority of folk had “a sense of decency”. She added that if someone posted something unpleasant, people were very quick to “clamp down on them”.

In a final word of support for Facebook, Florence Grains said she had personally not been aware of the cat photos on Facebook which had received a bad press over the course of the evening.

The final straw poll was a resounding victory for Lyall and Taylor. 13 people voted for the motion, eight were against it and four were undecided.

The evening ended with a round of applause for the four excellent speakers and with a warm farewell for outgoing chair Andrew Halcrow.

The Althing will return in October and is looking for committee members. Anyone who would like to get involved should contact the group via their Facebook page.