This column originally appeared in Echelon business magazine, March 2014 issue. It is being republished here (without change) as part of a process to archive all my recent writing in one place – on this blog.
Balancing Broadband and Narrow Minds
By Nalaka Gunawardene
Are we cyber-stunted?
I posed this question some weeks ago at Sri Lanka Innovation Summit 2013 organised by Echelon and News 1st. We were talking about how to harness the web’s potential for spurring innovation.
We cannot innovate much as a society when our broadband is stymied by narrow minds. How many among the (at least) 3.5 million Lankans who regularly access the web have the right mindset for making the best use of the medium, I asked.
We didn’t get to discuss it much there, but this bothers me. Sri Lanka has now had 19 years of commercial Internet connectivity (the first ISP, Lanka Internet Services, started in April 1995). That’s a long time online: we have gone past toddler years and childhood (remember dial-up, anyone?) and been through turbulent ‘teen years’ as well.
Technology and regulation have moved on, imperfect though the latter maybe. But psychologically, as a nation we have yet to find our comfort level with the not-so-new medium.
There are various indicators for this. Consider, for example, the widespread societal apprehensions about social media, frequent web-bashing by editorialists in the mainstream media, and the apparent lack of public trust in e-commerce services. These and other trends are worth further study by social scientists and anthropologists.
Another barometer of cyber maturity is how we engage each other online, i.e. the tone of comments and interactions. This phenomenon is increasingly common on news and commentary websites; it forms the very basis of social media.
Agree to disagree?
‘Facts are sacred, comment is free’ is a cherished tenet in journalism and public debates. But expressing unfashionable opinions or questioning the status quo in Lankan cyber discussions can attract unpleasant reactions. Agreeing to disagree rarely seems an option.
Over the years, I have had my share of online engagement – some rewarding, others neutral and a few decidedly depressing. These have come mostly at the multi-author opinion platforms where I contribute, but sometimes also through my own blogs and twitterfeed.
One trend seems clear. In many discussions, the ‘singer’ is probed more than the ‘song’. I have been called unkind names, my credentials and patriotism questioned, my publishers’ bona fides doubted, and my (usually moderate) positions attributed to personality disorders or genetic defects! There have been a few threats too (“You just wait – we’ll deal with traitors soon!”).
I know those who comment on mainstream political issues receive far more invective. Most of this is done under the cover of anonymity or pseudonymity. These useful web facilities – which protect those criticising the state or other powerful interests – are widely abused in Lankan cyberspace to malign individuals expressing uncommon views.
There are some practical reasons, too, why our readers may misunderstand what we write, or take offence needlessly.
Poor English comprehension must account for a good share of web arguments. Many fail to grasp (or appreciate) subtlety, intentional rhetoric and certain metaphors. Increasingly, readers react to a few key words or phrases in longer piece — without absorbing its totality.
A recent example is my reflective essay ‘Who Really Killed Mel Gunasekera?’. I wrote it in early February shortly after a highly respected journalist friend was murdered in her suburban home by a burglar.
I argued that we were all responsible, collectively, for this and other rising incidents of violence. I saw it as the residual product of Lankan society’s brutalisation during war years, made worse by economic marginalisation. Rather than barricading ourselves and living in constant fear, we should tackle the root causes of this decay, I urged.
The plea resonated well beyond Mel’s many friends and admirers. But some readers were more than miffed. They (wrongly) reduced my 1,100 words to a mere comparison of crime statistics among nations.
I aim to write clearly, and also probe beyond headlines and statistics. But is such nuance a lost art when many online readers merely scan or speed-read what we labour on? In today’s fast-tracked world, can reflective writing draw discerning readers and thoughtful engagement any longer? I wonder.
Then there is the humour factor – or the lack of it. Many among us don’t get textual satire, as Groundviews.org discovered with its sub-brand called Banyan News Reporters (BNR). Their mock news items and spoofs were frequently taken literally – and roundly condemned.
The web is a noisy place, but some stand out in that cacophony because of their one-tracked minds. They are those who perceive and react to everything through a pet topic or peeve. That ‘lens’ may be girls vs boys, or lions vs tigers, or capitalism vs socialism or something else. No matter what the topic, such people will always sing same old tune!
Tribal divisions are among the most entrenched positions, and questioning matters of faith assures a backlash. It seems impossible to discuss secularism in Sri Lanka without seemingly offending all competing brands of salvation! (The last time I tried, they were bickering among themselves long after I quietly left the platform…)
Oh sure, everybody is entitled to a bee or two in her bonnet. But what to do with those harbouring an entire bee colony — which they unleash at the slightest provocation?
I just let them be (well, most of the time). I used to get affected by online abuse from cloaked detractors but have learnt to take it with equanimity. This is what economist and public intellectual W A Wijewardena also recommends.
“You must treat commentators as your own teachers; some make even the most stupid comment in the eyes of an intelligent person, but that comment teaches us more than anything else,” he wrote in a recent Facebook discussion.
He added: “Individual wisdom and opinions are varied and one cannot expect the same type of intervention by all. I always respect even the most damaging comment made by some on what I have written!”
Moderating extreme comments is a thankless and challenging job for those operating opinion platforms. If they are too strict or cautious, they risk diluting worthwhile public debates for which space is shrinking in the mainstream media. At the same time, hate speech peddlers cannot be allowed free license in the name of free speech.
Where to draw the line? Each publisher must evolve own guidelines.
Groundviews.org, whose vision is to “enable civil, progressive and inclusive discussions on democracy, rights, governance and peace in Sri Lanka” encourages “a collegial, non-insulting tone” in all contributors. It also reminds readers that “comments containing hate speech, obscenity and personal attacks will not be approved.”
Colombo Telegraph, another popular opinion and reporting website, “offers a right to reply for any individual or organisation who feels they have been misreported”. Sadly, this courtesy is not available in many online news and commentary websites carrying Lankan content.
In the end, even the most discerning publishers and editors can do only so much. As more Lankans get online and cyber chatter increases, we have to evolve more tolerant and pluralistic ways of engagement.