Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Plato’s Republic

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?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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