Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Facebook

Ugly Part Two

This article was published in Ceylon Today on August 12, 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/part-two-ugly

Augmented and Virtual Reality

In his “Ugly” memo circulated on June 18, 2016, Andrew Bosworth (Boz), Facebook’s vice-president for augmented reality and virtual reality, argued that connecting people was a paramount goal for Facebook, and justified many of the company’s practices.

“Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still, we connect people.” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg makes a big thing about Facebook’s mission to connect. One might think of EM Forster’s injunction “Only connect”. This is the epigraph to Forster’s novel Howards End. His character Margaret Schlegel says: “The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them… It’s one of the curses of London.” In his short story “The Machine Stops”, written in the early years of the 20th Century, Forster anticipated the modern evolution of technology.  Forster is not actually talking about Facebook kind of social connection, but about something more elusive and private—the difficulty of connecting our ordinary, conventional personalities with our transgressive erotic desires. Boz was talking about a different kind of connection.

Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang write in their recent book An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination: “Boz had already defended his post on Facebook’s Workplace, arguing that he didn’t actually agree with aspects of his own memo and had written it to inspire debate. But employees wanted more. They wanted to know if he had actually considered the lives lost in countries where Facebook had grown at an astronomical pace. They asked if Facebook users from those countries had responded to his post directly, and if he felt bad about what he had written. Boz looked remorseful, but he repeated that he was simply making an intellectual argument and had intended the memo to spur debate.”

International Harm

Facebook has claimed credit for fostering struggles by citizens of citizens of oppressive regimes who have used social media sites for organising protests and creating networks. During the early days of the Arab Spring, many activists used Facebook to organise protests. To this day, numerous media outlets run the claim that “social media made the Arab Spring” and that it was a “Facebook revolution”. However, many academics concluded that there is no significant correlation between internet or social media use and popular unrest. Indeed, despite posing as a force for progress, Big Tech was collaborating with repressive governments in the Middle East and North Africa even before the Arab Spring started.

There has been much criticism of Facebook being an enabler for the spreading of hatred. Only a year ago the Stop Hate for Profit Coalition, a collection of civil rights groups that includes the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, Free Press, and Color of Change, were disappointed with their meetings with Facebook. The group denounced Zuckerberg’s “same old defense of white supremacist, anti-Semitic, islamaphobic, and other hateful groups” that it has “heard too many times before.”

Frenkel and Kang write: “As Facebook employees surveyed what appeared to be a global rise in hate speech, they found the name of their company surfacing repeatedly as a source of conspiracies, false news accounts, and organized campaigns of hate speech against minorities. Trump’s Muslim ban announcement was used by far-right leaders across the world to take more extreme positions on Muslim immigrants and refugees. In Myanmar, several of the country’s military figures pointed to Trump’s Facebook posting through their own Facebook pages and argued that if the US could ban Muslims, Myanmar should do the same. And indeed, human rights activists increasingly linked the platform to attacks against Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya minority and to the brutal crackdown on civilians by the recently elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte”

In Sri Lanka government ministers complained in 2018 that Facebook was too slow in dealing with incitement of violence against Muslims. The extremist leader Amith Weerasinghe, who was arrested after being accused of helping to instigate the violence, had amassed nearly 150,000 followers on his Facebook page before it was taken down. The chairman of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said Facebook played a “determining role” in the Rohingya genocide. Facebook has been criticized for enabling Islamophobic content targeting the Rohingya people to spread. In February 2021, a Press Gazette investigation found that Facebook had accepted promotional content from Chinese state media outlets such as China Daily and China Global Television Network that spread disinformation denying the Uyghur genocide.

Harm to Individuals

There have been many studies which indicate that for some users giving up social networking sites is comparable to giving up tobacco or alcohol. There was the “World Unplugged” study conducted in 2011, a 2012 study by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, a 2013 study in in the journal CyberPsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. In April 2015, the Pew Research Center published a survey of teenagers which showed 92 percent went online daily with 24 percent saying they went online “almost constantly.” In March 2016, Frontiers in Psychology published a survey showing that the severity of ADHD symptoms had a statistically significant positive correlation with Facebook usage while driving a motor vehicle. In June 2018, Children and Youth Services Review published a regression analysis in Northern Italy which showed adolescents who persistently using Facebook showed ADHD symptoms and negative attitudes about the past and the future. The researchers proposed a category of psychological dependence and gave it the name “problematic social media use.”

Ethan Zuckerman is an American media scholar, blogger, and Internet activist, author of the book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.  

He is now an associate professor of public policy, communication and information at the University of Massachusetts. Zuckerman has led efforts to promote freedom of expression and fight censorship in online spaces. “For better or worse, Facebook is an incredibly important platform for civil life, but the company is not optimized for civil life,”

Frenkel and Kang write: “We may be concerned about Facebook, we may even be fatigued by the amount of anger-inducing information we’ve learned about Facebook, but we still use its products.”

That includes me. I am not getting on a high horse here and looking down on lesser mortals who are worse at coping with Facebook than I am. I have always hated cigarettes but many years ago I did sometimes smoke even though I knew it was futile, dangerous and gave little pleasure.  Now that I have achieved senility, I find that I do not have much taste for alcohol and not much capacity. That does not prevent me from irrational behaviour and consuming the poison when it seems pointless. I have tried to wean myself away from Facebook but I still get distracted. I have cut down my dose but I still allow myself to be diverted from more important or satisfying pursuits and feel unhappy afterwards.  Facebook was down for about 30 minutes one Friday morning in 2014 and Los Angeles officials said their lines were overwhelmed with emergency calls. This cannot be right.

Flaming and Flouncing

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 31 2017.

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=28877

“Flaming and Flouncing” could have been the title of a Chuck Berry song. I got the terms from a blogging platform now defunct called Open Salon. A trivial dispute could easily escalate into a “flame war” with injured parties threatening to leave the site – “flouncing” – to derisive cries of “don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out!”

Media Addicts

Jean M. Twenge has written a book called, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us. Her research leads her to the conclusion that young people are being severely damaged by their addiction to smartphones.  She has been researching generational differences for 25 years but around 2012, she noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviour and emotional states. She claimed she had never seen anything like it in any of her research material, some of it dating back to the 1930s. A generation has grown up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet.

Mental Health Crisis

Twenge writes: “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones… the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.” The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression. Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide. Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased.

Murdered Sleep

Twenge was shocked to find that most of her undergraduate students at San Diego State University slept with their phones. “Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to sleep and the first thing they saw when they woke up. If they woke in the middle of the night, they often ended up looking at their phone.” Twenge comments: “Electronic devices and social media seem to have an especially strong ability to disrupt sleep.”

I am an elderly person and a late-adopter when it comes to technology. I am still using the amplifier I bought in 1983 and was quite comfortable with a black bakelite phone made in the 1960s. It took me a long time to get even a stupid cell phone (I mainly use it to tell the time and it often lies to me about that). Even without reading Twenge’s findings I find something creepy about the attachment of young people to their phones. I was given a smartphone but I have not got around to using it yet. I also find something very creepy about my own addiction to Facebook and some people clearly spend a lot more time checking and sending messages than I do.

Open Salon

I first started blogging about ten years ago on Open Salon which was launched as a platform for writers and other creative artists. It did not quite turn out like that. Although many smart and talented people participated (and I am still on good terms with many of them, even today) OS was too often a battlefield. Too much time was taken up with blather about celebrities. Posts which gained the most attention were, strangely enough, those which came to be known as ‘meta posts’ –  lengthy philosophical discussions about the ins and outs of the way the site worked. Other popular posts were those that gave rise to ‘flame wars’. These could go on for weeks and develop really long threads in which the original point became quite forgotten.

This tends not to happen so much on FB. Issues are usually more ephemeral because there are so many people involved and the throughput is so much greater that it was on OS. After a couple of days at the most, people tend to move on.

Heavy Meta

I had some meta thoughts recently in relation to Bruce Forsyth. It happened like this. X is one of my favourite virtual ‘friends’. He is erudite and well-read and pleasant company. He made some comments about Bruce Forsyth which I thought were inappropriate as the man had just died. We exchanged views and I could see that no minds were going to be changed and went to bed.

The next morning, I wanted to check if I needed to qualify my comments. I could not find my comments. Indeed, the entire thread seemed to have been deleted. I thought that was a good thing and moved on to other matters. Imagine my surprise when X brought up the matter again saying that someone was not happy about his comments on Forsyth. He did not name me but many people immediately pitched in to sympathise with him for the suffering caused by this anonymous persecutor. As many of the people condemning the anonymous person were my ‘friends’ I decided to out myself and explain my position. I patiently tried to put my case – I was not attacking X or denying his right to an opinion, merely disagreeing with him. X eventually said I should drop the matter and I agreed to do so. The whole atmosphere was that I was being obsessive arguing my case when it was X who had resurrected it. I felt that I had been manoeuvred into a position where I was seen as an obsessive bully who could not move on. I had thought that I was merely making a case for compassion.

PC

A distinguished poet was sharing a great deal of his new work, parodies of dead poets, with his friends on Facebook. Most people loved the work and said so. The poet was upset and lost sleep because someone chipped in to say that he should be including more women. I do not blame him for being upset – he is a sensitive and kind man who was merely trying to entertain himself and others without meaning any harm to anyone. I have been similarly upset on Facebook when I have found myself criticised in what I thought an unfair manner. I made the mistake of putting in a plea for sympathy for the offending commenter. She was wrong and I supported the poet but I was rather disturbed at way bystanders piled in to berate her. I ventured the thought that, judging from her posts, she suffered from a physical ailment which might affect her mental outlook, i.e. make her less than fully happy with the world. I was immediately chastised for offering “armchair diagnoses” and “fostering prejudice” against people with mental illness.

Time Runs Out

I flounced from OS long before it expired, partly because of the flame wars and celebrity chatter but mainly because it was taking up far too much of my limited time. I think I will be giving Facebook a rest for a while – not just because of the faults of other people who participate. I include myself in the category of those who have to have an opinion about everything, including the moral fibre of celebrities, those who have to make a smart remark about everything, those who like to pile in for a fight at every opportunity, those who make unwarranted assumptions about complete strangers, those who looking for ways to find offence, those pedants who love to point out the mistakes of others, those who love to flaunt their knowledge and culture. I am not being superior. I have been guilty of all those unpleasant behaviours plus many more that I have forgotten. Most of all, I have been guilty of wasting my precious time. I would advise other people to take a break too.

 

 

 

 

Identity Crisis Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday October 13 2016 under the title Licence of Anonymity

Colman's Column3

My G-Mail accounts were hacked at the end of July. The hacker, pretending to be me, sent out messages to my contacts asking for money and prevented me accessing my own accounts. He did the same with my Facebook account.

 

Who?

 

One real-life friend decided to test the hacker out by introducing false information. PH (my Personal Hacker) responded to the testing by becoming petulant: “I am surprised with the way you have been making a joke of a very serious situation.” My friend knew that I would not write like this, especially if I were asking him for help. He speculated that PH was “not a native English speaker.” Another real-life friend came to the same conclusion after receiving a nasty message from the PH saying “mind your business”. “I reckon the person is someone who speaks English as a second language.”

 

I had wondered if PH was a Sri Lankan.  To one real-life friend he wrote: “I want to ask if you can len­d me a­bout €850 to make up the little mo­ney lef­t with me so that i will be able ­to sort out a­ few bills and make the nec­essary arrange­ments to return home. I wi­ll r­efund ­you­­ the money in full as­ s­oon as i get b­ack.”  He makes the point that it is difficult to transfer money abroad from Sri Lanka – which is true. My wife believes the English in some of his messages is too good for a Sri Lankan but in those he has been copying from my e-mails.

 

PH showed his character when he approached someone I have never met in real life but whom I have known online since 2008. She showed the goodness of her heart by immediately offering to help ‘me’. She thought he wanted 50 euro and asked how she could send it. He suggested MoneyGram but stressed it was 850 euro that he wanted. She said she was struggling on a severely limited income and it would cause her hardship even to send 50 but she would try. He said “can you send 400”? What kind of person is this?

 

The inimitable Donald Trump imagined a typical hacker as “someone sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds.” A comment from a real-life friend about my PH was more succinct: “A vindictive little shit”.

 

Remote Control Valour

Way back in the last century, I studied Balzac’s Le Père Goriot for my French ‘O’ Level. A small passage from that has stuck in my mind ever since. Rastignac and Bianchon are discussing Rousseau, “Do you remember that he asks the reader somewhere what he would do if he could make a fortune by killing an old mandarin somewhere in China by mere force of wishing it, and without stirring from Paris? …  Pshaw! I am at my thirty-third mandarin”.

orson

In the 1949 film The Third Man, Orson Welles, as Harry Lime, is at the top of the Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel looking down: “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man.” This displays Lime’s amorality, his lack of interest in the children who are victims of his diluted penicillin, brain-damaged as a result of meningitis.

I have always been uncomfortable about the way movies glamorise snipers and professional hit-men. Snipers certainly have to develop an impressive skill, as do hackers. Snipers are shooting at people a long distance away. The longest shot ever was over 2400 meters; snipers are shooting at people who are hit before the sound of the shot even reaches them. Navy Seal Sniper Chris Kyle had over 150 confirmed kills. He was himself killed on a firing range by a former Marine with PTSD. Is it moral or ethical to shoot somebody from over a mile away? Somebody who has no warning, can’t even see you or have any chance to shoot back?

kyle

 

Keyboard Warriors

Drones, killing machines that can be operated from thousands of miles away from a keyboard with no danger to the killer, have killed far more people under Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama than under GW Bush.

police-eagle-drone-hunting

The anonymity of the internet allows PH to bully with impunity total strangers who have never done him any harm, and are in no position to kick him in the nuts. Tough guy!  In Plato’s Republic, there is the tale of a shepherd named Gyges who finds a ring that makes him invisible. He has sex with a queen, kills her king, and takes his throne. The impunity of invisibility is corrupting. Physical invisibility only occurs in fiction but the internet has granted the license of anonymity and trolls and hackers operate under a cloak of invisibility to behave in a way they would not contemplate if they were visible in the real world. They are unaccountable.

Digital Savvy versus Wisdom

PH dropped all pretence of BEING ME when he wrote TO ME! Signing himself as “Fishbird” he wrote: “I am sorry for all the problems i have caused you this past few days. However, i want you to know the follwing (sic): I don’t know you nor have any particular personal motivation for taking over your mailbox other than looking for little money to survive on. I am willing to hand you all i have taken from you if you will help me with very little money to enable me settle my school bills. I know i have wronged you but please i need your help. I will let you know how to prevent future hacks as creating new emails is not the best line of action.”

If he is clever enough to cause so much disruption and unpleasantness, surely it would have been more intelligent to just send me an e-mail in the first place asking for my help. As he has been grubbing through my personal correspondence he will have gathered that I am an elderly person surviving on a modest pension. He will also have seen that am always giving money away, so I probably would have helped him. How often do these scams bring in any money?

Why?

Mat Honan is digital savvy enough to write regularly for Wired magazine. “In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted. Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my Apple ID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.”

Matt Honan managed to establish some contact with his hacker and asked him why he did it: “His answer wasn’t satisfying. He says he likes to publicize security weaknesses, so companies will fix them.” Pull the other one!

 

I readily admit that PH is much cleverer than me when it comes to the intricacies of IT. He is sadly deficient when it comes to moral or ethical intelligence. Why is PH going to all this trouble? There is a strong sense of cognitive dissonance. He is lying to himself. He seems to be angry with me just because I am trying to get on with my life, in which I try to do good rather than harm. Somehow I seem to have failed him because he is being frustrated in his project of doing harm rather than good. How does he sleep at night?

 

 

Identity Crisis Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday October 6 2016

Colman's Column3

Someone is begging for money using my name. Some people really believe he is me. On several occasions, I have had to answer some testing questions from people I have known for a long time in real life. This is reasonable enough and I could easily convince them that I am the man they know.

It is not so easy to convince Facebook and on 27 September I was expelled from that community. Dealing with Facebook and Google one enters the world of Kafka.

lw435-mc-escher-ascending-and-descending-19601

Der Prozess

In The Trial by Franz Kafka, Joseph K is arrested by two warders “one fine morning,” although he has done nothing wrong. The German title, Der Prozess, connotes both a “trial” and a “process”: the machinery has been set in motion, and the process will grind toward conclusion. The examining magistrate tells K that he has seriously damaged his own case by his behaviour. Everyone who knows K also knows about his trial. From his point of view, the entire universe finds him guilty. He is taken to a quarry by two men who stab him to death. At least my unfair trial by Facebook only led to this: “We’ll get in touch with you at the email address you provided after we’ve reviewed your ID. You will now be logged out of Facebook.”

 

I am grateful that, on this “fine morning”, I am not a corpse in a quarry, merely a live one in a quandary.

 

kafka-the-trial

 

Positive and Negative

The experience of having a faceless stranger’s grubby fingers rifling through one’s life is very distasteful. There have been some positive aspects, however. I have reestablished contact with a lot of real-life friends from whom I had not heard for a long time. Thank you for that Mr  PH (Personal Hacker). Soon after I was alerted that I had been hacked, I started receiving many supportive phone calls – from Ireland, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the US and the UK. Two different bank managers called me. One real-life friend in Sri Lanka telephoned and was surprised when I answered the phone. She really though I was stranded in Cyprus and had been making arrangements for her daughter in the UK to send ‘me’ a payment. I was touched by this but puzzled that an astute professional could be so gullible. When I met her last week she showed me the e-mails the hacker had sent.

I understood why she had believed the hacker. One e-mail said “Dear B, Can I call you on this line (he quoted her office phone number) X (that’s my wife) extends her sincere greetings and gratitude for all your concern and assistance”. Another e-mail to B gave details of our attempt to purchase a property and to dispose of our current home. There were enough errors in his e-mails to indicate that the writer was not me. Nevertheless, it is creepy to be aware that he is obviously ploughing through my personal correspondence and putting together a faux persona that convinces some.

 

Customer Service

My real-life and virtual friends responded sympathetically to my plight but many were far too optimistic about how easy it is to deal with such a situation. People told me that the first thing to do was to report the breach to Facebook and Google because those organisations have solid systems in place to handle account hacking. I would certainly expect them to have solid systems in place but I was not able to utilise them.

If my credit card were stolen I would be expected to notify the provider immediately. I have found it impossible to notify Google or Facebook that my identity has been stolen. I have attempted the cumbersome recovery procedure several times. I am told it has been successful but then I have to enter a verification code sent to my mobile phone. I cannot do this because my friendly neighbourhood PH has replaced my mobile phone number with his.

Horse Bolted. Lock the Stable Door

The Google and Facebook help pages confine themselves to giving useless advice about preventing future hacks rather than dealing with the specific hack that has already happened. I had anyway followed the advice. I never share my passwords with anyone, even my wife. I had recently changed my passwords several times. There is nothing personal in the passwords. They are rated as ‘strong’ because they are totally random and contain mixtures of letters, digits and symbols. I could not hope to remember them myself, so I do not understand how anyone else could guess them.

Who Cares about Customers?

This kind of scam has been going on for many years. I have received many such messages myself. The modus operandi is to send an e-mail to my contacts asking why the hacker posing as me has not received a reply to a previous (non-existent) e-mail. He has got my friends’ addresses from my G-Mail accounts which he has hacked. However, he does not use my G-mail  addresses to write to my contacts. He has set up new accounts with addresses that differ from my addresses by just one character.  The recipient generally does not realise the discrepancy and even if they do they dismiss it as an error.

One friend wrote to me: “Surely G-Mail have some idea who he is and where he is from these newly created accounts?” I would have thought so but experts advise me that Google would not seek such information without a court order. The perpetrator’s human rights get more protection than the victim’s. It is impossible for me to report this to G-Mail. I just get sent around in a loop and fail at the end. I am reminded of those so-called “impossible constructions” by MC Escher, such as Ascending and Descending and Relativity. There appears to be a lot of information on the G-Mail and Facebook help pages but there is no e-mail address or telephone number. There is at Google or Facebook no human being with whom to discuss the identity theft. This kind of scam has been the subject of numerous articles over the years and the boffins at Google and Facebook must be clever enough to stop it. They haven’t stopped it because they don’t care. It is not harming profits.

lw389-mc-escher-relativity-19531

You Are Who?

While many pooh-poohed the idea, I wondered from the outset whether this hacker had some personal grudge against me. Like the pooh-poohers, I had seen many examples of this kind of scam before. Nevertheless, I was surprised at his persistence. The messages have been going out for three months and, at the time of writing, show no signs of stopping.

 

A real-life friend tried to engage with my PH and got a threatening response. All pretence of being me was dropped: Using the name “Spitfire” he sent this message: “Maybe you should just mind your business because your email might be next.PS: tell your friend that this is what happens when he tries to recover the email i already hacked into. If he tries recovering it with any other email then he looses that one too!”

In the first debate with Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump visualised a stereotypical hacker: “It could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds.” One of the hackers who recently intruded on President Sirisena’s official website was a seventeen-year-old boy. Mat Honan is digital savvy enough to write regularly for Wired magazine-  but he still got hacked: “In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed”. Honan managed to establish some contact with his hacker whom he calls Phobia. Phobia was 19 years old.

A real-life friend speculated about the identity of my PH: “This smacks of an IT support type person who has had an opportunity to either get third party access to your hardware or even direct access during a mend or upgrade.” I followed up on this line of thinking. My desktop PC was indeed in a shop being repaired when the hacking occurred. It would have been easy for one of the technicians to log into my G-Mail accounts because the system remembered the passwords. Once in, he could change my passwords because he knew my mobile phone number. He could then use two-step authentication to override my mobile phone number.

I went to the shop and explained to one of the managers and a technician what had happened. They said it could not have happened there. Three brothers have been running the business for 15 years (they have always been helpful to me and are often reluctant to charge for their service) and they said they had never experienced anything like this before. Their technicians have been with them a long time and are completely trustworthy – they would say that wouldn’t they? The technician showed no sign of guilt and told us about a CID unit that investigated this kind of hacking. We had expected the messages to stop after letting the shop know that we knew. In fact, incidents gathered pace.

Next week I explore the psychopathology of the hacker. Why on earth do they do it? What kind of moral universe do they inhabit?

Identity Crisis Part 1

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday September 29 2016

Colman's Column3

There has been some peculiar activity on my G-Mail and Facebook accounts.

 

hoody

 

 

Burgled

Have you ever been burgled? It has happened to me on three separate occasions. Twice in Manchester, and once in London. The first time in Manchester, I was actually in my home when it happened, shut up in my room suffering a terrible bout of flu. My flatmate, who had helpfully left the kitchen window on the ground floor open, had nothing stolen. I lost a jacket and an overcoat. Dealing with the police was not a pleasure. I was also close by for the second Manchester break-in, although I had been away in India, Nepal and Thailand for three weeks. We arrived home by taxi to find the front door open and a wind blowing through the house. There was a photo on the front room window ledge. The burglars were in the house when we arrived and watching out for us. When they saw us they escaped through the back door. Again, the police were not helpful. They went through the house taking fingerprints but one sensed that it was futile. A constable stared at me philosophically for a long time before saying :”If nothing appears to be missing, sir, how do you know you have been burgled”. I reminded him that we had returned home after three weeks abroad to find the front an d back doors open. My Wimbledon house was broken into when I was working away and my wife was in Paris with her mother. The intruder may have thought he had found drugs, because scattered about were chunks of Moroccan Mud, a shampoo that could have been mistaken for cannabis resin. He would have been very disappointed if he tried to smoke it.

Hacked!

On July 24, 2016, Gazala Anver, editor of Roar.LK, the Sri Lankan on-line news site, contacted me to warn me that I had been hacked. My G-Mail account was being used to send a message that I was stranded in Cyprus and in urgent need of funds to get back to Sri Lanka. I have never been to Cyprus in my life and have not set foot outside Sri Lanka for ten years. This is a very common sort of scam that has been going on for years. Over the years, I have received many similar messages purporting to be from my friends. Many articles have been published in the press about it. I was inclined to ignore it, thinking nobody would take it seriously, and move on but my own PH (Personal Hacker) seems to be prepared to go that extra mile to discommode me.

One of the many downsides of G-Mail is that it tries to organise one’s e-mail experience to suit Google rather than the individual punter. One of the most annoying things it does is to remember the e-mail address of every entity that one has ever corresponded with. My PH  was using this unwanted-by-me facility to annoy everyone in the world who had ever communicated with me online. My immediate reaction was to contact all my friends and family to let them know that I was OK and not in need of funds. This proved impossible because the hacker was sending his lying message to hundreds of people and had blocked my access to my own G-Mail account. The address book I had compiled for myself contained only a small proportion of the addresses he was targeting. He proceeded to do the same with my second G-Mail account. Then he moved on to my Facebook account.

As I write, he is still sending out that Cyprus scam to my Facebook friends and I cannot access my FB account.

Violation

People who received the scam message reacted in a variety of ways. I have to this day avoided engaging with the PH although he has written directly to me as well asking for money. Some did engage with him. Most people saw that it was a scam and knew that the message did not come from me. Some chided him, some teased him. Some thought the whole thing was amusing.

It was hard for me to see the funny side. I had used G-Mail for my work, for managing my finances and for communicating with friends and family all over the world. I used it to collect and store a lot of material. All this is now lost to me because my PH somehow got past my Gmail passwords (which had been classified by Google as ‘very strong’) and proceeded to deny me access to my own accounts. I have recent evidence that he has been carefully studying my e-mail correspondence.

Returning to the burglary analogy – the break-ins I experienced did not result in major financial loss or damage to property, but that did not mean they can be treated lightly. Scholarly studies have indicated that in some cases the after-effects of burglary are similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Emotional problems can include: feeling guilty for not preventing becoming the victim of a crime; a loss of faith in a society where such crimes could occur; feelings of mistrust, isolation, fear and vulnerability; fear of a repeat burglary; an obsession with home security.

In my case, the strongest feeling was of violation – an uninvited and malicious stranger had contaminated the sanctum of my home and had been rifling through my personal possessions. I am not talking about property, materialism or commercialism. The intruder had scattered around disrespectfully things that had personal value to me, including a collection of postcards that my grandfather had sent to my grandmother during the First World War.

This hacking aroused similar emotions. A malevolent stranger is, as I write, for no discernible rational purpose, rifling through my personal correspondence on G-Mail and using the information gathered to try to convince people that he is me. How hilarious is that!

 
Victim as Perpetrator

My Wimbledon burglar did not employ a very subtle technique. He gained ingress to the back garden from an alleyway that runs between the rears of the parallel terraces of houses. He then proceeded to batter down the kitchen door and go about his business. I was surprised that no-one heard him and called the police. When I asked the old lady next door about this, she said she had indeed heard it and it was a terrible noise. She did not think of calling the police but was, in effect, blaming me for the inconvenience she had suffered.

I detected something similar in responses from some of my virtual acquaintances. One Facebook friend, to whom I had thought I had explained the situation, still seemed to think I was asking her for money and said, “I wasn’t born yesterday!” Someone who had been an online friend since 2008 wrote to me recently saying, “Hope you were able to find the help you needed the other day. I’m truly sorry I couldn’t help.” I responded that I had sent her an e-mail explaining that I was not in Cyprus but had been hacked. She said, “I genuinely thought it was you needing help.  It was over Facebook messenger so I did think it was you.  The idea of a hack or scam occurred to me briefly, but because it was a live conversation, I really did think you needed help. His story was really rather believable.”

 

Doppelgängers

 

unknown_poster

There have been a number of movies about mistaken identity and identity theft. Unknown (2011), starring Liam Neeson and January Jones, is about Martin Harris (Neeson) waking from a coma to find his passport missing, his wife (Jones) denying knowing him and Aidan Quinn claiming to be him. Nobody believes Harris is who he says he is. In John Boorman’s The Tiger’s Tail (2006), Liam O’Leary (Brendan Gleeson), is an Irish property developer of humble origins who has become rich and powerful during the “Celtic Tiger” Irish economic boom. The Irish bubble burst and O’Leary is under stress as his overreaching seems to be leading him to his ruin. He begins to be haunted by his own Double who is sighted around Dublin, ordering suits and flash cars on Liam’s credit card and behaving in a scandalous manner. Liam’s mental condition is not helped by having to convince people he is Liam and the doppelgänger isn’t.

 

tigers-tail

There is something particularly nightmarish about trying to convince sceptics that you are you, when a doppelgänger about whom you know nothing is trying to convince them that he is you.

 

More about doppelgänger nightmares next week.

 

 

 

 

 

Hate Speech and Free Speech

This article appeared on page 7 of Ceylon Today on Tuesday April 28 2015.

 Colman's Column3

I’m of the opinion that we fought too hard for freedom of speech to have a wrong ‘un like this define the terms of it – one day you’re censoring people who offend you, the next you are being censored by people you offend – it’s a slippery slope. Julie Burchill on calls to ‘silence’ Katie Hopkins.

 

Hate Speech Law for Sri Lanka

Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne announced that the government plans to revise the Penal Code to make hate speech a crime a crime punishable by a two -year prison term. The LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) had asserted that hate speech had exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions in Sri Lanka.

Rwanda Example

Kigali, capital of Rwanda is the safest city in Africa today. Twenty years after the genocide in which 800,000 people were slaughtered, Rwanda has transformed into a peaceful and prosperous nation.

In Rwanda in June 1983, a new radio station called RTLMC (Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines) began broadcasting. Drunken presenters found a large receptive audience of resentful thugs. David Yanagizawa-Drott, a Harvard political scientist, estimates that nine percent of the deaths in the genocide, forty-five thousand Tutsis, can be attributed to incitement by Radio RTLM.

Today, journalists criticising the Rwanda government can be prosecuted for defamation. The law prohibits political parties from appealing to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. President Kagame argued that some Westerners define “human rights” too narrowly, defending rights of personal expression while underestimating the importance of stability.

Sri Lankans Hating on Facebook

According to a report by the CPA (Centre for Policy Alternatives), hate speech is a particular problem on the internet and a particular problem in Sri Lanka. The CPA report says that out of a population of 21 million, there are more than 2.3 million users of social media, the majority of them male. Social media provide ”low risk, low cost and high impact online spaces to spread hate, harm and hurt against specific communities, individuals or ideas”.

In Plato’s Republic, there is the tale of a shepherd named Gyges who finds a ring that makes him invisible. He has sex with a queen, kills her king, and takes his throne. The impunity of invisibility is corrupting. Physical invisibility only occurs in fiction but the internet has granted us the license of anonymity and trolls operate under a cloak of invisibility to behave in a way they would not contemplate if they were visible in the real world. They are unaccountable- as Kathryn Schultz puts it:  “like gods and despots, beyond the reach of custom, obligation, and law.”

The CPA report only studies Facebook. One could argue that the CPA’s own website, Groundviews, and its rival Colombo Telegraph, also provide space “to spread hate, harm and hurt against specific communities, individuals or ideas”.

The Offensive Katie Hopkins

Most Sri Lankans will be fortunate in that they have never heard of, or, even luckier, never heard, Katie Hopkins. Masochists among you might wish to look at YouTube to get a flavour. Hopkins first appeared on UK television as a contestant on the reality television programme The Apprentice in 2007. She now writes a column for British “newspaper” the Sun.  She describes herself as a “conduit for truth”. Critics accuse her of expressing controversial opinions to make money.

On 17 April 2015, Hopkins wrote that migrants were “cockroaches”. This appeared in the same week that 400 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean and more than 10,000 were rescued.

An online petition to ban Hopkins from television accumulated over 75,000 signatures. By 21 April, a petition calling on the Sun to sack Hopkins attracted 250,000 signatures.

I note that the CPA report was based solely on research done into Facebook. There has been a lot of noise on Facebook about Hopkins. Julie Burchill is a celebrated polemicist and quite practised at giving offence (and taking it without flinching). Burchill detests Hopkins, her views and unprofessional mode of expressing them. However, she would not want Hopkins to be silenced. “I’m of the opinion that we fought too hard for freedom of speech to have a wrong ‘un like this define the terms of it – one day you’re censoring people who offend you, the next you are being censored by people you offend – it’s a slippery slope”.

No Right not to Be Offended

 

Josie Appleton, a free-speech campaigner, 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.

 

I am offended when Colombo Telegraph allows someone to call me “a paedophile tourist“.  However, I am inclined to think that the person saying that is just an inadequate boy who feels tough like Gyges hiding behind a pseudonym. I wonder if he would say that to my face. My shoulders are broad and I would not like Uvindu Kurukulusuriya to go to jail for that kind of infantile nonsense.

 

Who Decides?

British journalist Paul Harris offended Anton Balasingham and was punished by being deported from Sri Lanka. Harris gives his own account in his book Delightfully Imperfect published by Vijitha Yapa. Harris wrote in the London Daily Telegraph about flaws in the peace process and called Karuna a “bad egg” and Thamil Chelvan a “rotter”. He called Prabhakaran “Chief Genial Fatty”. It was this irreverent stuff as much as accounts of child conscription and fascist rallies that angered the LTTE. Harris recalls meeting the current prime minister at a Galidari function when Ranil pointedly refused to shake his hand.  The newspaper Nawa Pereliya said that “international arms dealers” were paying Harris’s accommodation bills. That same Rajitha Senaratne who announced the new hate speech law owned Nawa Pereliya. Can we trust people like this to be the mediators and moderators of public debate?

For and Against

 

In his 2007 book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: a Biography of the First Amendment, Antony Lewis warns the reader against the potential for governments to suppress freedom of speech in times of fear. Jeremy Waldron, professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, was critical of Lewis’s stance on hate speech. Waldron argues the need for a public climate of mutual respect and tolerance. Waldron believes that it is sometimes necessary to use the law to curtail freedom of speech if speech infringes on the freedom of another.

 

What to Do?

 

Sanjana Hattotuwa writes: “Civility, tolerance and respect for diversity are as hard to find online as they are in Sri Lanka’s mainstream party political framework even post-war.” Incivility, intolerance and venomous hatred are easy to find on Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph.  The comment threads are choked with pseudonymous hate-mongers.  Hattotuwa writes: “It would be a tragedy if the country’s only remaining spaces to ideate, critical (sic) reflect and robustly debate – which are online – are taken over by hate-mongers, to the extent they are allowed to do so in the real world”.

 

Do Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph create the “climate of mutual respect and tolerance” that Waldron desires? Rather than hypocritically neglecting to put its own house in order, CPA could avoid incitement to racial hatred. I recall that, on July 19 2013, during the halal controversy, Groundviews (in an article by no named author)  tried to make something out of a non-issue relating to the brand name on a packet of dates. This could have exacerbated  tensions.

 

Without resorting to law, most publications and websites can use their editorial powers to reduce hatred.  Groundviews tells potential contributors: “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.” It is not self-censorship to enforce your own sensible rules.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philanthropy – the Last Refuge of the Scoundrel?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 8 2014.

I am not sure who originally came up with the phrase “Philanthropy – the last refuge of the scoundrel”. I first encountered it in an article published in October 2012 by the novelist Howard Jacobson on the subject of Jimmy Savile. Savile used his reputation as a philanthropist to sexually abuse children. I recently encountered a use of the phrase in a book by James O’Toole: Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness, published in 2005. James O’Toole is the Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver. O’Toole shows how a range of people embarked on quests that led them closer to achieving a good life based on awareness and values rather than riches and fame.

Aristotle: “To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.”

 

I recently became embroiled in an argument on Facebook about Otara and Odels. Someone who thought he was supporting my point of view wrote that Otara should be spending her philanthropic funds on people rather than dogs. Compassion is not a zero-sum commodity. Anyone who loves animals is likely to have empathy for people. People who are cruel to animals – GW Bush, Jeffrey Dahmer, Fred West, Prabhakaran- are likely to be cruel to people. A friend of mine who is engaged in practical hands-on animal welfare was sceptical when Otara embarked upon Embark, predicting that it was a publicity stunt. I chided her for her cynicism but there has been criticism of how Embark operated. We will see how it goes now that Otara has more time to personally supervise it.

 

Noisy Philanthropy

 

I do have issues with celebrity philanthropy. The late Paul Newman raised $150m for various good causes. He explained a dilemma: “One thing that bothers me is what I call ‘noisy philanthropy’. Philanthropy ought to be anonymous but in order for it to be effective, you have to be noisy. Because when a shopper walks up to the shelf and says, ‘shall I take this one or that one?’ you’ve got to let her know that the money goes to a good purpose. So there goes all your anonymity and the whole thing you really cherish”.

 

Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics

When I was working with my cynical friend on an animal welfare campaign, her daughter had the brilliant idea of approaching ethical philosopher Peter Singer for support. Peter Singer has a motto: “make a difference”. He certainly made a difference to the way I live my life. Way back in the 1970s, I read articles by Singer in the New York Review of Books that made me see things in a radical new light. His subsequent books Practical Ethics and Animal Liberation reinforced the message of the articles. Singer argued that the boundary between human and “animal” is arbitrary. He popularized the term “speciesism”, to describe the practice of privileging humans over other animals. I was rather disappointed when Singer asked me to remove his name from my mailing list. He was not interested in giving painless direct help for the welfare of animals by simply lending his name.

Outsourcing Compassion

In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, Singer argued that it is morally indefensible that some people enjoy surplus abundance while others starve. When one is already living comfortably, a further purchase to increase comfort will not have the same moral weight as saving another person’s life. Singer claims to donate 25% of his salary to Oxfam and UNICEF. He acknowledges that there are problems with ensuring that charitable donations are effectively spent.

In Joseph O’Neill’s latest novel, The Dog, the main character, X, is concerned about the working conditions of construction workers in Dubai. He deals with his concern by paying 37% of his gross salary to Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch. This sounds like a big sacrifice but it is a comfortable way for X to delegate his conscience. O’Neill makes blatant the bad faith of Singer’s thinking. Singer’s method of giving means that it does not matter whether the money does anything to relieve suffering or poverty but it certainly boosts the giver.

 

Bono – Mrs. Jellyby in a Ten-Gallon hat

Novelist Paul Theroux has noted the similarity between the secular saint known as Bono and the philanthropic Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House. Mrs. Jellyby tries to save starving Africans by financing coffee growing, making pianoforte legs for export and bullying people to give her money for those purposes. Theroux wrote in the New York Times on December 15 2005: “There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of one at the moment.”

Bono says at U2 concerts, “We don’t want your money, just your voice.” Bono wants you to give the government your money in taxes and spend it for him. Bono’s ONE organisation wants Western governments to spend tax dollars on development and aid programmes. Many voices, those of William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo the most eloquent among them, have argued that aid does more harm than good to the countries receiving it.

Theroux taught in Malawi as a volunteer Peace Corps teacher 45 years ago and knows the country well. Despite large amounts of financial aid, Malawi “has declined from a country with promise to a failed state.” “I would not send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for – and this never happens.”

In 2008, Bono’s ONE Campaign raised $14,993,873 in public donations — of which only $184,732 (or just over one percent) was distributed to charities. More than $8 million went to salaries for executives and employees at ONE.

In 2008, New Internationalist readers chose Bono as their Artful Dodger of the year. For many years, Bono’s home country of Ireland had not taxed the income of “artists”. Then the Government decided to set a cap of $200,000 a year – a fortune for most artists, but not for U2. Ireland is still a corporate tax haven and Bono would have done well enough had he decided to stay home. The Netherlands offered a more attractive deal, because of its link with offshore tax-havens in the Antilles. It seems that Bono wants ordinary people to pay through their taxes for his causes but does not want to pay tax himself.

Geldof

 

I was one of those caught up in the mass hysteria generated by Live Aid in 1985. I responded to Bob Geldof’s exhortations to pay up to save the starving Ethiopians. Live Aid turned Geldof from a has-been pop performer into a global charity superstar. Not everybody was impressed. World Music champion Andy Kershaw wrote of the Wembley concert: “It became clear that this was another parade of the same old rock aristocracy in a concert for Africa, organised by someone who, while advertising his concern for, and sympathy with, the continent didn’t see fit to celebrate or dignify the place by including on the Live Aid bill a single African performer.”

Alex de Waal estimates that the relief effort may have cut the death toll by between a quarter and a half. However, critics say that NGOs were complicit in the Ethiopian government’s “resettlement” of 600,000 people from the north while enforcing the “villagisation” of three million others. Donor governments and mainstream relief NGOs turned a blind eye while government officials raided refugee camps. This was a totalitarian scheme masquerading as a humanitarian effort. The conservative estimate of those dying en route is 50,000. MSF’s (Médecins Sans Frontières) estimate is double that. Asked about allegations that 100,000 had died in the transfers, Geldof said, “in the context [of such a famine], these numbers don’t shock me.”

Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s poorest countries. Whilst making a fortune for charity Geldof has also shown an aptitude for making himself rich. One of his companies, Ten Alps Communications is Britain’s fastest growing media, entertainment and marketing company. The company deals with some unsavoury allies, creating “branded environments” for BP, Glaxo Smithkline and Microsoft, and even the British Foreign Office. When Geldof tried to relive Live Aid with Live8, Nestlé, BAE Systems and Rio Tinto sponsored some of the concerts. Nestlé has been accused of benefiting from the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa by selling more milk substitute products; Rio Tinto, the world’s largest mining corporation, has been condemned for human rights and environmental abuses; BAE Systems, according to Mike Lewis of the UK’s Campaign against Arms Trade, is “fuelling conflicts across Africa”.

Many people involved in the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign were not happy with Geldof. He chose to hold Live 8, without consulting the MPH organisers, on the same day in 2005 as the main MPH demonstration in Edinburgh, stealing most of the media coverage. Geldof praised Tony Blair and GW Bush for saving millions of African lives and promoted the Washington Consensus of free trade, foreign direct investment and privatisation.

 

 As with Live Aid in 1985, Geldof was criticised for not including any African musicians. At the final press conference that concluded the G8 summit in Gleneagles, the South African activist Kumi Naidoo acted as spokesperson for Make Poverty History gave the coalition’s verdict that: “The world has roared, but the G8 has responded with a whisper.” Geldof turned on Naidoo in front of the assembled media, attacking his statement as “a disgrace”. African civil society representatives went on television afterwards to make public statements dissociating themselves from Geldof’s remarks.
Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie was a practical philanthropist. He knew how to make money and he knew how to use it effectively. Carnegie established charitable organisations that are still active nearly a century after his death and he set the template for other philanthropists through his well-written thoughts on the theory and practice of charity. Carnegie urged the wealthy to provide for themselves and their dependents and then make it their “duty” to use the rest of their funds for their communities. He warned successful men who failed to help others that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Modern day rich givers like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have expressed a Carnegie-like wish to divest themselves of their wealth.

 

This echoes The Buddha’s aphorism about the wealthy man who enjoys his riches without sharing, digging his own grave. Those of us who are not wealthy would be advised to give directly to those in need rather than outsourcing to huge corporations or overweening rock stars. Make a difference to the poor not to the rich.

 

Where Are the Prosecutions, Punishments?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday 25 June 2014

Colman's Column3

 

On Monday 16 June 2014, I went to Badulla to take a dog to the vet. Everything seemed normal in town. I was shocked to see pictures later in the day on Asian Mirror, showing a mob stoning familiar shops on Bazaar Street. The BBS (Bodu Bala Sena) staged a protest in Badulla demanding the release of several suspects who were arrested for attacking a Muslim shop in the town a few days before. The suspects, according to Police, are members of the BBS.

This is a disturbing echo, closer to my own home, of the appalling events at Aluthgama. The Aluthgama riot and bloodshed apparently arose out of a road rage incident or a physical assault on a bhikkhu. The Badulla incident apparently arose out of a sexual harassment allegation.

The Badulla story goes that two Sinhalese girls had entered a Muslim-owned shop and asked to purchase a pair of denims. The girls then allege that the sales clerk videoed them from above the changing room using his cell phone. A variant version was that the shop owners had fixed CCTV cameras in the changing room. The girls’ father recruited a mob and stormed the shop, assaulting the salesman. Police had intervened to maintain the peace and taken the sales clerk into custody. Police investigation into the incident is in progress.

On June 20, Badulla was calm but tense. On every street there were policemen in riot helmets carrying big sticks.

Malinda Seneviratne wrote: “Not only are things lost in narration, lots get added on too in the process. A disagreement becomes dispute, dispute becomes argument, argument raises voices, raised voices lead to in-your-face closeness, proximity tends to contact, contact is read as aggressive touch, touch is blow, and blow is assault.  What happens between two human beings is then an altercation between two persons from two communities, religious communities, that is.”

As a Guardian reader succinctly commented: “What ‘triggered the incident’ was the propensity of stupid people to believe stupid things, especially if the stupid things target a group they are predisposed to hate.” Another viewpoint is that this is becoming a common ruse adopted by extremist organisations to attack Muslim-owned businesses, and that Muslim entrepreneurs need to take adequate precautions to protect their interests. Could that lead to further violence?

These incidents reminded me of a much more serious “trigger”, even closer to my home, a couple of years ago. A Muslim youth stabbed and killed a Sinhalese boy. Their dispute was not about religion and had nothing to do with communal strife. The two boys had been firm friends since childhood. This was a crime of passion – they had fought in rivalry over the affections of a girl. Luckily, BBS were not around to exploit the incident and all sections of the local community sprang into action to dampen any sparks of conflict. All local shops closed voluntarily and the police imposed a curfew. Meetings were held between Buddhist and Muslim clerics, the families of the dead youth and his assailant and the police. There was no further violence, although one still reads about jealous husbands killing wives and vice versa.

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts abroad are bemoaning the moral turpitude of “the average Sri Lankan”. One of my favourite quotations is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All generalisations are dangerous, including this one”. I would hesitate to judge “the average Sri Lankan”. I  would like to take a more optimistic line. I do not like headlines about “communal strife”. I live in a poor village, which has many Muslims and Tamils. It sometimes feels as though the Sinhalese are the minority. I am not saying that it is an idyllic paradise. There are often disputes but they are not on an ethnic basis. Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese generally get on OK and even intermarry- a woman who works for us is a Tamil married to a Muslim and they have an adopted son who is Tamil (but does not know it). We have Sinhalese workers who live in the Tamil lines. Many Tamils are Christian rather than Hindu. The broker who arranges our car insurance has a Muslim name but is a staunch Catholic. There could be harmony if the BBS would allow it.

Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese seem to get along with each other, and with the Sinhalese, and with this Irishman. Our immediate neighbours are Muslims. We were here before them. We have not always enjoyed perfect harmony- there used to be some intimidation from them and on one occasion, there was an angry mob at our gate wielding knives. They were responding to a false rumour about what we were doing with the water supply. This was the kind of thing Malinda referred to. I responded to other incidents of aggression on my neighbour’s part by presenting him with a box of avocadoes from our trees. Our sympathetic response to a couple of deaths in their family has led to a situation where we rub along generally and help each other out on occasion. As I write, their cattle are tearing at our hedge again!

We are fortunate in that the high priest of our local Buddhist temple, who has been a good friend to us for ten years, is a wise, compassionate and humorous man. Most of the people who work for him are Tamils and they worship him. Our Muslim neighbours take their children to his Montessori school at the temple. He regularly attends events organised by Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

As I write, the situation is still not clear because most of the news is coming to us from abroad and the Government is saying nothing. It seems that seven died, three of whom perished in a drive-by shooting indicating that BBS might have an armed militia. The Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) a research and link aggregator  owned by the Beacham group, classified Bodu Bala Sena as a ‘terrorist organization’ in April 2014

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts who live abroad have expressed fears that nothing has been learnt from the horror that was Black July in 1983, when Sinhalese mobs attacked Tamils and sparked off a thirty-year civil war. One woman in Aluthgama was quoted in the press: “At this rate, it won’t be long before a Muslim Prabhakaran is born.”

There was one positive aspect in 1983. Many Sinhalese -and I have heard eye-witnesses reports about this – endangered themselves by having the courage to protect Tamils who were strangers to them. This time one of my Muslim contacts reports that “Buddhist work friends collected funds in an office and donated for the affected at Aluthgama. Very noble of them. Why , it’s entirely possible that BBS will lose adherents in greater numbers than gaining them. Allah Akbar!”

In Aluthgama, a Sinhalese citizen told Dharisha Bastians. “We have no grouse with the people on that side of the village. They are our friends. We know them. We didn’t recognise the people who fought last night, they were not from here”.

Encouraging news came from Dickwella. The Chief Incumbent Priests of eight Buddhist temples spent two hours at the Muhiyibdeen Jumma Mosque at Yonakpura, Dickwella. The act of solidarity was to strengthen communal ties and avert any fears of copycat incidents in the area. The clergy said that the root cause of the incidents in Aluthgama and Beruwala was misinformation and that the people of Dickwella should be vigilant about attempts to instigate communal disharmony in their town. Dickwella Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Krishali Muthukumarana said that Dickwella people have lived in harmony by respecting each other’s beliefs and customs. All the members of the PS irrespective of their political affiliations would ensure that no communal hatred was instigated.

Harendra Alwis on Groundviews explored this issue in a philosophical mode but also offered some practical advice on avoiding despair, promoting tolerance and social integration and embracing diversity. I feel a smidgeon of caution about one thing Harendra says. “Do not be distracted or discouraged by those who call you “Facebook heroes”, “armchair critics” or hurl any number of derogative remarks at you instead of – or while – engaging with what you have to say.” It is true that these issues have to be exposed to the cleansing sunshine and fresh air of open debate. Groundviews has an important role to play in this. There is, however, a danger that passions could be further inflamed by polemic in the social media. As Nick Hart commented on Groundviews, it is “nonsensical and irresponsible to attempt to tar all Buddhist monks with the brush of intolerance, or to imply that every individual from a minority group is an innocent victim. Sri Lanka and the world know that this is not the case.” I recall that Groundviews itself seemed to be dangerously stoking the fire in the controversy over halal products, when Sanjana Hattotuwa strained very hard to find insult to Muslims in the packaging of a certain item.

 

The use of terms like “communal strife” makes me queasy. Just like every act of communal violence in Sri Lanka’s history, the recent “riots” in Aluthgama against Muslims were not spontaneous expressions of ethnic or religious grievance involving ordinary civilians. There is legitimate fear on the part of Muslims. Buddhists need to convince their Muslim neighbors that BBS are not acting in their name. That, of course will be futile if the police allow BBS to continue their thuggery. Where are the prosecutions and punishments?

 

Two Cheers for Facebook

This article was published in Ceylon Today on January 29 2014.

Colman's Column3

Enemies of promise?

UK education minister Michael Gove recently had an article in the London Daily Mail in which he wrote: “Exactly 75 years ago the great English writer and thinker, Cyril Connolly, published his most famous book – Enemies of Promise. Connolly’s work explores the ways in which the talented individuals of his time were prevented from achieving their full potential.”

Well, Michael, up   to a point. I cannot help wondering if you have actually read the book. The most famous quotation from the book is: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

Mr Gove says: “It’s time someone produced an update.”Who are the guilty men and women who have deprived a generation of the knowledge they need? Who are the modern Enemies of Promise? Well, helpfully, 100 of them put their name to a letter to The Independent newspaper this week. They are all academics who have helped run the university departments of education responsible for developing curricula and teacher training courses… Sadly, they seem more interested in valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence.”

This has little to do with what concerned Connolly. He was not much interested in who was guilty of depriving a generation of essential knowledge. Connolly was writing about himself. The overarching theme of the book is the search for an explanation of why Connolly failed to produce a major work of literature. Connolly confronts the evils of domesticity (symbolised by “the pram in the hall”), politics, drink, and advertising. Connolly provides a list of things that can distract a writer can use as ways to drift away from writing.

What are the real enemies of promise in the 21st cewntury? What is the equivalent of “the pram in the hall” today? Social media must be a strong contender as a major distracter and disrupter.

About 75 percent of 12-17 year-olds in America own a cell phone. Half of them send 50 or more text messages a day and one-third send more than 100 text messages daily. I do not text much or use a mobile phone unless I have to. However, I do recognise the power of social media in preventing me from writing the greatest novel of all time. I started blogging in 2008 on a site called Open Salon, which invited contributors on the basis that it offered a platform for writers, photographers and other artists. That was not how it turned out. The site policy of openness left the doors open to flame wars and obsessives. I withdrew and started using Facebook.

Why write that masterpiece (or fill in your tax return) when you can read recipes, look at pictures of cute kittens or discuss TV programmes? Some people just post to say they are having a coffee or that the sun is shining. Some argue that technology alters our brains. In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argued that the Internet might have detrimental effects on cognition that diminish the capacity for concentration and contemplation. Nietzsche’s prose style changed when he started using a typewriter. Carr ventures that the cognitive impact of the Internet may be far more encompassing than any other previous intellectual technology because it is replacing them all. Carr contends that ads and obtrusive notifications significantly hinder the capacity to concentrate. These detrimental effects on concentration are compounded by traditional media because they  mimic the Internet, in order to remain competitive.

I have been comfortable on Facebook, although there are many opportunities to be irritated. However, the most irritating thing for me is people who make condescending remarks about Facebook on Facebook. I fully understand that someone might object to such social media sites on principle but I would have more respect for that viewpoint if they just stayed away from Facebook. There are real issues about privacy and Facebook does not have a good record of responding to concerns about technical “bugs”.

There are those who see conspiracies everywhere and believe that the CIA set up Facebook for its own fell purpose. They may have a point. Facebook has willingly provided information in response to government subpoenas or requests. The 2013 mass surveillance disclosures instigated by Edward Snowden identified Facebook as a participant in the U.S. National Security Administration’s PRISM program. Facebook now reports the number of requests it receives for user information from governments around the world. There has been concern about Facebook selling users’ data to private companies.

I found my experience of Facebook mostly positive. “Experts” worry that lack of face-to-face social interaction might be psychologically harmful.  It might even cause the part of your brain that controls speech to atrophy. However, I have been lucky enough to interact with people whose witty banter keeps my brain stimulated.

Another remarkable phenomenon is the kindness of strangers. One of my Facebook friends is suffering from a horrible illness. The outpouring of affection reinforced by practical and financial help that flowed to her was awe-inspiring. A support group was set up to get another Facebook friend out of jail in Africa. The group raised money to get him to the UK and found accommodation for him. He is now reunited with his wife and children and undertaking  an AA 12-Step programme. In less dramatic circumstances, other writers more celebrated than myself have shown me great kindness and support.

I have to confess that I am going through a jaded phase. Did Noel Coward not say: “A man who is tired of Facebook is tired of life”? No, he did not. He was talking about London. Sometimes the witty banter fades as people think they have to make a million jokes every day or to express an opinion on every topic, speculate about the private life of every Z-list celebrity.

Even in those positive instances I cited, vicious flame wars erupted between members of the “support group” which had nothing to do with the people being supported.

A joint study conducted by two German universities found that one out of three people felt less satisfied with their lives after visiting Facebook. Social envy was often the cause. Some resented the fact that their Facebook “friends” were posting vacation photos of destinations they themselves could not visit. On Open Salon, there was much anger about the award of Editor’s Picks and spaces on the cover. Facebook users compare the number of birthday greetings they get.

Gloomsayers argue that social networking keeps our minds off important matters and encourages apathy. Sherry Turkle argues that social media bring people closer and further apart at the same time. Peoples’ expectations of each other tend to be lessened.  Although people network they get a feeling of loneliness in spite of being together.

One has to learn to step back and avoid obsession. A 2013 study in the journal CyberPsychology, found that some users actually decide to leave social networking sites because of their feeling of getting addicted.

Many people confuse debate with diatribe. Anger that would be suppressed in face-to-face contact is given full expression online. I nimbly stepped back from what looked like a long war when a stranger in the American Mid West disagreed with my views on punctuation. I have seen otherwise rational people (perhaps over-rational) writing long essays in comment threads about the most abstruse points, the equivalent of the number of angels on the head of a pin. One thread had over 600 of these lengthy comments. Who has the time for this? One has to accept that some people will not be persuaded to change their minds whatever rational arguments are put to them.

Psychologist John Suler coined the term “online disinhibition effect.” Anonymity allows a disconnect between the commenter’s identity and what he is saying. The moment you shed your identity the usual constraints on your behavior go, too. Arthur Santana, a communications professor at the University of Houston, found that a full fifty-three per cent of anonymous commenters were uncivil, as opposed to twenty-nine per cent of registered, non-anonymous commenters. Anonymity, Santana concluded encouraged incivility.

Substantive debates are one thing, but negative, vile comments—especially personal attacks—are something else.  To eliminate or censor comments, however, does not seem to be the answer either. More about the serious implications of this next week.

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