“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
So went the now iconic New Yorker cartoon in 1993. The artwork, a little ahead of its time when it was first published over 20 years ago, long before the term web 2.0 was even coined, was a humorous allusion to the relative anonymity provided by the then fledgling World Wide Web for anyone with a basic grasp of HTML. Now, at the tail end of 2016, where one in four people all over the world actively participate in online social networking, this deceptively prophetic cartoon and the message contained therein seem more relevant than ever: on the internet, you can be anything you want to be ‒ even if what you want to be is a vile, fear-mongering racist ‒ and you can get away with it simply by hiding behind a sufficiently anonymous username that your friends, loved ones, or prospective employers will likely never associate with you. And, as post-war Sri Lankan race relations have demonstrably shown, there is no better place for spewing hate-filled, bigoted rhetoric than social media.
Facebook pages and Twitter handles abound that are constantly pitting one group of human beings against another (or several others, as the case may be) along lines of political, socioeconomic, or ethno-religious divides. Many of these unsavoury groups and pages, often followed by tens of thousands, are administered by nameless, faceless champions of patriotism and traditional values, anonymously rallying their troops around a cause that is as dangerous as it is misguided. While not all of these accounts are managed by Goebbels-esque geniuses (a lot of them almost certainly genuinely believe in what they espouse), a few seem to exist for the sole purpose of gaining political ground. Scapegoating comes naturally to these master manipulators who expertly shitpost their audiences into attributing their very real anxieties and legitimate grievances to a propped up boogeyman of the admin’s choosing. Their pages and their chauvinistic movements grow in popularity every day, recruiting fresh blood at every turn and influencing young, impressionable minds everywhere, leading to a toxic online environment where hate, paranoia, and mistrust are the order of the day and the real issues get buried under a heap of venom and unconstructive vitriol.
Sadly, there is little that can be done about the content of these pages [as well as their owners] within the confines of the law. And rightly so, we might add. (This writer’s naively idealistic position is that freedom of speech, at least on the internet, ought to be absolute and must not be subject to any kind of censorship no matter how tasteless or disagreeable the content; political correctness be damned). But, at the risk of stating the obvious, social media isn’t a government and is therefore not obligated to uphold freedom of expression the way a nation state is expected to. The various private owners and large corporations that run these sites make their own ‒ often confusing ‒ rules; rules that are usually formulated with the objective of keeping the majority of users safe and happy ‒ which means that any piece of content that threatens a c̶u̶s̶t̶o̶m̶e̶r̶’̶s̶ user’s sense of safety and well being is immediately taken down. One might also argue that sites like Facebook, whose user base is in the range of billions, have a social responsibility and a moral obligation to prevent the propagation of hate speech and irresponsible reporting. The recent calls for Facebook to tackle its fake news problem is a case in point.
An obvious dilemma arises when one’s distaste for hateful content and their relentless advocacy of free speech are at odds with each other. Even if most people were able to discern the offending pages for what they are, there is no guarantee that everyone will be able to tell the difference between a legitimate and authoritative source and a malicious troll ‒ especially in a country like Sri Lanka where many internet users seem to get their news from dubious, garden variety gossip sites and their corresponding Facebook pages. (If the comment sections of these sites and pages are any indication, a worryingly large number of people seem to take articles published in these sites as gospel, which can sometimes even influence their voting behaviour). So what do you do?
Fortunately or unfortunately, the mandate of the usual ethics and regulatory bodies that oversee traditional media do not apply to new media (unless registered with the Government) and certainly not to social media profiles and pages managed by private individuals. It’s not for a lack of trying, however. Reports the official Government news portal: “It has been proposed to establish an independent board to regulate the contents of news published in print media, broadcasting media (radio and television), and registered websites with the view of promoting professionalism and ethics securing the free, independent and plurality [in] media culture.” There is no denying that regulation of media outlets is necessary and important to an extent; however, while it’s still too early and unnecessarily alarmist to cry “censorship!”, the goal is clear: upcoming news websites will not be given government registration and the credence and credibility that comes with that recognition until and unless they get in line. It’s not quite “publish and be damned” (yet), but arguably close enough. The call to regulate content is particularly worrying.
Getting back to the point about free speech vs. deplorable content, if censorship or government regulation is not the way to go, how then does one address this issue? Facebook pages and gossip sites may be a lost cause, but news sites, registered or otherwise, have a responsibility to adhere to at least the most basic of journalistic ethics. However, even that must be self-regulatory and (in this writer’s opinion) never imposed by a governing body ‒ which, admittedly, is no guarantee of anything. The onus, then, is on the reader to educate himself or herself on what constitutes responsible and accurate reporting and, in the absence of a local snopes.com, curate their social media feeds accordingly. Easier said than done in a world where users are constantly bombarded with agenda-driven information with varying degrees of bias and inaccuracy, but it can be done. Confirmation bias, ably assisted by Facebook’s well-documented echo chamber effect, is also a problem, where readers no longer need to seek out articles that confirm their preconceived notions but their newsfeed gives it to them on a platter, neatly packaged with clickbait headlines that convince them that they and they alone have the right idea about how the terrorists are making a comeback (or how Sri Lanka has never been this prosperous, if you’re a UNP supporter).
Fighting this is hard, but not altogether impossible. The trick is to develop a little empathy for the other side and learn to see where they’re coming from. If you’re a liberal-minded person who values coexistence, it’s also important to remember that not everybody sharing what you deem hateful content on social media is necessarily a full-fledged racist or Sinhala/Tamil/Muslim supremacist. While it’s true that Facebook and similar platforms help propagate hate and racism much more effectively and efficiently than ever before, what must be noted is that there is an underlying reason that such content goes as viral as they do. Along with the staying power of false stories with a heavy emotional connection, this reason can be anything from legitimate economic grievances and a feeling of disenfranchisement and/or marginalisation to actual acts of extremism ‒ not unlike the global status quo that led to the surprising victory of Donald Trump in the US and continues to give rise to right wing sentiments worldwide.
This is not to say that there is no systematic racism in Sri Lankan society. Far from it. But the fact remains that the anonymous dogs of the internet can and do exploit people’s real and often perfectly valid fears ‒ people who are otherwise intelligent and mostly decent ‒ and raise hell to achieve their nefarious goals. It’s up to us as discerning readers to separate fact from fiction and share content responsibly. Even if your “friends” sharing such content are, in fact, actual racists, engaging them constructively rather than writing them off as complete idiots not worth your time can be one way to reverse the trend. Creating a culture where social media users question everything they read online and take questionable content with a pinch of salt instead of passively consuming everything the internet has to offer is something we all can and must contribute to. All it takes is a little patience and empathy.
Cover image courtesy: intca.org