Tuesday, February 19, 2008

South Africa struggles with online hate

It's not often you hear a newspaper editor question the value of free speech. Yet, that is precisely what Ray Hartley, editor of The Times, a daily published in Johannesburg, South Africa, did in a blog post last week. In a mere 250 words, Hartley managed to convey the frustrating divisiveness that is the byproduct of new media formats. Here is the post reprinted in full:

Is Web 2.0 stirring up racism and hate in South Africa?
I ask this question because of the hundreds - yes HUNDREDS - of highly abusive, racist and hate-filled comments that are posted on any story to do with anything on South African sites that allow the public to comment. Fortunately, these comments are mostly filtered out by administrators, but they do suggest that the open social media utopia that we dream of is in danger of becoming a cesspit of hate and anger.
A typical discussion thread goes like this:
1. An article is posted, say on why the football team drew a game after a valiant 90 minute effort;
2. A reasonable, argued comment goes up along the lines of: “We should have done better, but our defence was too weak and we lacked a striker”;
3. Then comes: “Maybe they should have stuck with a white captain. But Neil Tovey would never even get into this new South Africa trash side.”
4. The floodgates open and the racist invective flows like blood from a severed caratoid.
5. Those posting comments start reporting views they disagree with as abuse and these are removed.
6. Moderators sift through the flotsam and jetsam at a loss for words.
7. The next article goes up and it all starts again.
I don’t mean to demean the many very positive, very constructive and frequently highly articulate participants in our discussions. But there are seriously awful people out there who are finally giving vent to their seriously awful views online.
Makes you long for the old media.

As you can imagine, commenters on this post took the opportunity to prove him right -- often pseudonomously. It may be tempting to conclude that post-apartheid South Africa, a nation struggling with violence, disease and extreme social tension, is particularly susceptible to online racism and anger. But we know that South Africa is not unique and that the internet is, by its nature, an international forum.

How long before well-meaning people give up on new media as a space for childish venting and the anonymous realization of cowardly fantasies?


Evan O'Neil said...

Text messaging (SMS), the new media cousin of the blog, is also being used to spread hate speech anonymously. The UN's IRIN news service reports that post-election ethnic crimes have been encouraged via mass text in Kenya, and that the government has responded by texting public service type announcements that warn of possible prosecution for spreading hate speech in this manner.

Maple said...

Thanks for that blog, I completely agree with you...it's quite ridiculous.

I've just started a blog of my own bc I'm shortly moving to SA and want to talk about my perception of the situation there.

I've received nothing but negative comments...it's all there is. I know there is a lot of problems in SA but what good can come out of nothing but negative attitudes?