Broadband, Narrow Minds.

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Colman's Column3


This article was published in Ceylon Today February 5 2014


Shamindra Kulamannage, editor of the excellent business magazine, Echelon, did me the honour of inviting me to the Innovation Summit last year. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend and was disappointed to miss the opportunity to hear my Ceylon Today colleague Nalaka Gunawardene speak about the internet.  Nalaka impressed me with his ideas when I met him at a CEPA Symposium in December 2012 and I have been following his writing ever since.  At the Innovation Summit, Nalaka said that in Sri Lanka, the internet was still immature judging by the behaviour of some of the “netizens” prowling around cyberspace. “We must nurture trust – not in terms of cyber security but in cyber civility”. He referred to the amount of hate speech found on the web. “We are cyber-stunted and still not able to take advantage of its uses. We have broad band but narrow minds”.

Hate speech and incivility are phenomena on the internet world wide, not just in Sri Lanka. I have been following a thread on Facebook about an article concerning Holocaust Memorial Day by a blogger who calls himself Old Holborn. One of the Facebook commenters summarised the issue: “ the true lesson we should learn from Holocaust Memorial Day is that he should be allowed to be rude to people on Twitter.” People died on the Normandy beaches so that Old Holborn could enjoy freedom to insult. Another commenter said: “to equate infringement of his right to being an arse on the Internet to being a victim of the holocaust is fatuous in the extreme.”

Professional contrarian Brendan O’Neill wrote on his Spiked website: “It’s time we referred to this fretting over trolls by its real name: a moral panic, as unfounded in fact and motored by irrational fears as any of the moral panics of the twentieth century…”.  O’Neill believes that media sensationalism has fuelled the skewed idea that trolling is a mass and dangerous phenomenon, rather than just streams of words in a virtual forum. Sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the term “deviation amplification” to describe the media’s exaggeration of small numbers of deviant folk into fabric-tearing folk devils.

In Sri Lanka, which is undergoing a difficult reconciliation process after thirty years of brutal war, the online incivility of pseudonymous troll is more dangerous than in other countries.

The editor of the pro-Government Daily News, Rajpal Abeynayake, thought that there was better level of debate in UK comment threads than in Sri Lanka. He wrote in September 2011 in Lakbima News: “Website commentary is so well-written and argued a lot of the time that it gets equal attention as the writer does… In this country, the assault on free speech is also on the side of responsibility. With a few Rambo-like grunts, they make their opinions known … This is like allowing children with dodgem cars to enter a Formula One race.” I check comments most days on the Independent, the Guardian, Huffington Post, and Slate. They are not always very cogent.

Abeynayake He did a good bit of grunting himself on Colombo Telegraph. See:

Now, CT is going after him in a big way including attacks on his appearance (calling him a “midget” and “pint-sized prick” and comparing the reduction is size of his paper’s main section with the size of  the editor’s)  and private life.

Abeynayake  does have a point about comments in the SL Daily Mirror. The Island and Ceylon Today are strange cases as they appear to be open to comments but comments never appear. The Sri Lankan commenter can be seen in all his (there are some females, but commenting is generally a male pursuit) glory in habitats such as online sites like Colombo Telegraph and Groundviews. There is much about CT and GV that is excellent. They both publish informative articles by distinguished writers of all shades of opinion.

However, the comment threads are problematic. There is a general tendency for the same crowd of pseudonymous trolls to resort to ad hominem attacks, going for the man rather than the ball. Whenever Dayan Jayatlleka posts an article, the usual suspects immediately accuse him of looking for an ambassadorial job. Here is a recent example from CT: “How is it that this Bugger Dayan De Silva escaped the eye of the International Crooks, not to have appointed him as the UN Sec Gen? It is not too late even now.” Rajiva Wijesinhe takes the trouble to make suggestions for improving governance at the most minute nut-and-bolt level. Rarely do his suggestions attract anything other than personal abuse. “Shitty Sinhala majoritarian ‘professor’ is condoning, pretending not to know about it, the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka. He is worried about the Buddha Ariya Sinhala state of Shit Lanka.” Michael Roberts brings his years of distinguished academic service to the task of reporting historical facts. “This is another moron who is selling his Pseudo ‘Dr.’ title to gain an upper hand in reporting fairy tales & presenting it to the public to be believed. He is in the business of licking the back of MR regime for paying him handsomely for his service.”

Just for balance, CT allows virulent anti-Tamil comments like this from Fathima Fukushima”:   “In vain I real wish 150,000 Tamils died in the last few days”. The “moderators” often allow this kind of comment. “Whatever the arguments and counter arguments are, SL is better off without the dead Tamils…Well done SL army – the best in the world. If need be, do the same thing again in higher numbers. Anything that is bad for Tamils is good for SL”.

In his 2007 book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment, Antony Lewis warns the reader about the potential for governments  to take advantage of periods of fear and upheaval to suppress freedom of speech and criticism by citizens. In Rwanda, President Kagame has banned writing about ethnic differences. Ostensibly, this was to prevent a repeat of genocide but critics see it as an excuse to suppress criticism of his regime. Free speech campaigner Josie Appleton argues that: “Hate speech regulation curtails the moment of ideological conflict, when no crime has been committed. In this, the state appears to be defending the victim. But it is actually defending itself, as the mediator and moderator of public debate, and the judge of what is and is not acceptable.” She describes many frivolous and harmful prosecutions in the UK. We must have the right to offend. No-one has the right to be protected from being offended.

Jeremy Waldron, who is professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, argues the need for a public climate of mutual respect and tolerance. “‘[The] peaceful order of civil society and the dignitary order of ordinary people interacting with one another in ordinary ways, in the exchanges and the marketplace, on the basis of arm’s-length respect.” Waldron argues that it is sometimes necessary to use the law to curtail freedom of speech if speech infringes on the freedom of another.

It should not be necessary to resort to the law. Most publications and websites have their editorial and community standards. For example, Groundviews tells potential contributors: “Attack the issue, not the person. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.  Comments that seek to inflame tensions on the ground, or are of a defamatory nature, will not be approved, or will be taken off the website as soon as possible.”

Colombo Telegraph has similarly high-minded guidelines: “We welcome debate and dissent, but personal attacks (on authors, other users or any individual), persistent trolling and mindless abuse will not be tolerated. The key to maintaining the website as an inviting space is to focus on intelligent discussion of topics.”

I leave it readers to judge if CT is serious about this. Dip a toe into the world of CT here:

Is the Appleton/Lewis line feasible in a country like Rwanda? There is still plenty of scope for conflict in Sri Lanka. Is it sensible to allow hate speech continually to stoke the fires of conflict? War still raged when Dr Rajasingham Narendran wrote: “Better communication, awareness and sincere debate, I am sure can yet resolve our problems sensibly and silence the guns permanently. It is about time we truly get to know each other after several decades of relative separation and mutual suspicions, begin to celebrate our commonalities and accept as normal our differences.”