Addressing hatred on the web


Image courtesy The Economist

An article in the Economist explores an issue central to my work – the rise of hate speech on the web and the means through which it’s production, dissemination and influence can be constrained. In The brave new world of e-hatred, the Economist notes that,

What is much more disturbing is the way in which skilled young surfers—the very people whom the internet might have liberated from the shackles of state-sponsored ideologies—are using the wonders of electronics to stoke hatred between countries, races or religions…

A decade ago, a zealot seeking to prove some absurd proposition—such as the denial of the Nazi Holocaust, or the Ukrainian famine—might spend days of research in the library looking for obscure works of propaganda. Today, digital versions of these books, even those out of press for decades, are accessible in dedicated online libraries. In short, it has never been easier to propagate hatred and lies. People with better intentions might think harder about how they too can make use of the net.

I keep going back to David Pogue’s comments in 2007. Speaking of the timbre of debate online, the NY Times renown tech columnist said:

The real shame, though, is that the kneejerk “everyone else is an idiot” tenor is poisoning the potential the Internet once had. People used to dream of a global village, where maybe we can work out our differences, where direct communication might make us realize that we have a lot in common after all, no matter where we live or what our beliefs.

But instead of finding common ground, we’re finding new ways to spit on the other guy, to push them away. The Internet is making it easier to attack, not to embrace.Maybe as the Internet becomes as predominant as air, somebody will realize that online behavior isn’t just an afterthought. Maybe, along with HTML and how to gauge a Web site’s credibility, schools and colleges will one day realize that there’s something else to teach about the Internet: Civility 101.

I’ve also tracked Sri Lankan bloggers talk about the issue of trolls and hate speech in the SL blogosphere and have documented the downfall of Moju, one of Sri Lanka’s first group blogs aimed at young social and political activists after it was consumed by spite.

In April 2007, a couple of us who were in Liverpool for the Online Dispute Resolution Forum came up with a Statement for Respectful Communication that personally inspired the submission and discussion guidelines at Groundviews, an award winning citizen journalism site I created and edit.

The Economist article makes a vital point however. It notes that,

The small size of these online communities does not mean they are unimportant. The power of a nationalist message can be amplified with blogs, online maps and text messaging; and as a campaign migrates from medium to medium, fresh layers of falsehood can be created. During the crisis that engulfed Kenya earlier this year, for example, it was often blog posts and mobile-phone messages that gave the signal for fresh attacks. Participants in recent anti-American marches in South Korea were mobilised by online petitions, forums and blogs, some of which promoted a crazy theory about Koreans having a genetic vulnerability to mad-cow disease.

I’ve seen plenty of Facebook groups, blogs, community websites and even news services that promote lies, half-truths and vicious propaganda as the one and only Truth. There is no engagement encouraged or possible in these fora with the unlike-minded and it follows that same jingoistic dualism that defines the Bush administration’s approach to so much of its policies on terrorism – one is either with them or against them. No alternatives. No concessions. No debate. No multiple truths. No reconciliation.

One example of this mindset is to be found in a comment on an article concerning a landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which noted that a Tamil denied asylum in Britain could not be sent back to Sri Lanka because he would be at risk of torture.

The comment notes that,

Some Sri Lankan Tamils seeking asylum in the West on account of what they call “torture” in Sri Lanka (and we from Sri Lanka know the self-inficted torture that Tamils practice) are falsely producing scars as evidence of having been inflicted by the military and/or police.

One has only to go to Kataragama and see the Kavadi dancers with the sharp metal objects pierced through their skins, mouths, and tongues; others similarly pierced dragging heavy loads using these pierced elements as harnesses to prove their devotion, and fire-walkers, etc. etc.).

The sheer chutzpah of this statement is incredible, but is indicative of a milder version of the vicious, partisan, exclusive nationalist rhetoric that colours both pro-LTTE Tamil national as well as pro-Sinhala Buddist / pro-Rajapaksa Sinhala nationalism on the web.

This vicious narrative echoes much of what is outlined in a recent article published in the New York Times that is fascinating for its exploration of the (secret) lives of trolls, including the one purported behind the notorious Kathy Sierra incident. Looking at why online hate is promoted by trolls, Malwebolence notes,

One promising answer comes from the computer scientist Jon Postel, now known as “god of the Internet” for the influence he exercised over the emerging network. In 1981, he formulated what’s known as Postel’s Law: “Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.” Originally intended to foster “interoperability,” the ability of multiple computer systems to understand one another, Postel’s Law is now recognized as having wider applications. To build a robust global network with no central authority, engineers were encouraged to write code that could “speak” as clearly as possible yet “listen” to the widest possible range of other speakers, including those who do not conform perfectly to the rules of the road. The human equivalent of this robustness is a combination of eloquence and tolerance — the spirit of good conversation. Trolls embody the opposite principle. They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.

Emphasis mine.

My own interest is in the creation of (virtual) spaces that allow the unlike-minded to engage as constructively and progressively as possible in the shared belief that it is only through civil, respectful conversations that peace can be imagined, nurtured, given birth to and sustained.

One measure I took when creating Groundviews for example was a well defined framework for submissions and discussions on the site. What I noticed very early on was that few actually cared to read this and fewer comprehended what was put down. I then put up a blurb on top of the comments section that noted quite expressly that comments were moderated according to a set of guidelines. Both measures were able to keep the trolls at bay on the site, though the site and I got plenty of vicious flak on the blogs and websites run by individuals who felt slighted that their diatribes weren’t published.

Today, the number of comments I actually reject is close to zero, proving that a set of guidelines that allow for the negotiation of difference and the contestation of varying viewpoints in a civil manner can and does ultimately facilitate a qualitatively rich discussion online.

5 thoughts on “Addressing hatred on the web

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