Sunday 05 July 2020

We don’t need a witch hunt, we just need decency

This column first appeared in Malta Today

There is quite an easy way to prevent out-of-control hate speech on one’s personal wall: you simply do not share any inflammatory articles related to hot button issues which can trigger an outburst. The most obvious issue is immigrants, of course, but there are also other topics I have learned to steer clear of where I know the passions on both sides are at such fever pitch that they will never agree and any attempt at rationale discussion is futile.

As a friend once told me, you just have to deprive these people of their oxygen and I have come to the conclusion that she is right. The only way to extinguish the worst aspects of human nature is to not give them publicity and the attention they desperately need and crave to survive. It works just as well with political fanaticism aimed at dividing us even further, as it does with racism and xenophobia aimed at making us join forces against a ‘common enemy’.

Controlling online comments on Facebook pages, however is not that simple. Every media outlet has its own page where it shares its news stories, but unlike comments on news portals which have an editor, the comments below that story on FB are not monitored or moderated – how can they be? This is why Minister Farrugia’s recent remarks made me scratch my head in puzzlement: “The police cannot do all the work to tackle hate speech on social media, Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia has insisted, stressing that online media also has certain responsibilities to monitor the discourse.”

The thing with FB is that it has certain in-built quirks; you can switch off comments on a group, for example, but not on a page or even on your own personal profile. In fact the only way to get rid of truly awful, unacceptable remarks is to delete them or in extreme cases, to delete the entire post. Of course, that means the person can simply write them elsewhere.

He went on to say that they would not be carrying out a witch hunt on social media, which many saw as a sign that he was backtracking after announcing the commendable initiative to set up the Hate Crime & Speech Unit. What I cannot understand is what he expects ordinary people to do? If the police resources aren’t adequate and a published article once it is shared on social media is out of a news organisation’s hands, all it takes is one off colour remark and the haters come crawling out of the woodwork, drawn to the shredded remains of the story like vultures feasting on a decaying carcass. I’m sure it has not escaped your attention that those who are inclined to say the most despicable things tend to swarm together like angry locusts, gaining power and momentum as more of them join in.

Meanwhile, it has now become a habit for some people to screen shot the worst comments, and then go and snoop on the profiles of the people who wrote them so that they can be scathing about them to their own social network. Is this getting us anywhere? Well, by the increase in people practically foaming at the mouth suggesting that refugees should be machine-gunned, burnt or gassed, “Hitler-style”, I would say the answer is…no.

On the other hand, if the new unit does not intend to go through the comments and take action against the people who feel that it is OK to write such things, then tell us Minister Farrugia, what is the point of this unit and what will it actually be doing?

The bottom line is that no one should be writing such things about anyone – whether the issue is immigrants, the political party and supporters you love or hate, or even whether you agree or disagree with abortion (another hot topic about which people seem incapable of being coherent). There are some who argue that by “venting” on social media, it is actually a way to defuse controversy because people use up all their pent-up energy arguing online rather than actually physically harming others. I cannot agree with this at all because from what I can see, those who are like-minded are simply revving each other up to justify their hatred of the ‘other’ (whoever the other may be). And acts of violence in Malta, as we know, are all too very real.

OK, so now let us examine the hatred

I am pretty sure that there are those who will have given up reading after the first couple of paragraphs, branding me with disgust as your typical bleeding heart liberal who is too naive to understand the ’threats’ of immigration.

But for those who have got this far, let us just take this issue from the other angle. What makes people hate others so much that they want to see them dead? The root of the resentment in Malta is quite clear cut. We have never had a mixed race society before and, for many people, the sight of so many African and black refugees congregating in specific areas is still a sight which brings them unease and discomfort. We are not unique in this: those who live in predominantly white neighbourhoods in the States still feel exactly the same way when they see a group of young black men, even though the US has always been a multi-ethnic country. In simple terms, people fear those who are different to them and nothing can be more different than skin colour and facial features.

People are also antagonistic towards those whom they perceive as being out to completely change their country or culture (even though there is little indication that immigrants have changed Maltese culture in any way – a few shops/restaurants selling ethnic food are only intended to cater for that specific community and cannot be construed as changing our culture).

Most of all, people tend to be hostile when another ethnicity or race is foisted upon the country without their consent, and my guess is that this is the biggest grievance. When a country’s population feels it has no say or control over what is happening but that it has to simply accept and adjust because that is what higher powers have decided, then the reason for the fear/hatred become easier to comprehend. It has been too bewildering and too massive a change and there seems to be no end in sight and no real political resolution to the exodus. I happen to agree with people who protest that we cannot keep accepting hundreds and hundreds of refugees, in the same way that I feel that importing foreign workers by the hundreds is not sustainable either. Malta is not like one of those dining room tables to which you can add an extension and suddenly instead of seating four, you can seat 12.

I can also understand how the Ħal-Far violence and destruction of property has simply reinforced the worst fears of those who were already inclined to think the worst of all immigrants. Breaking the law is unacceptable, by anyone. The problem is that by spewing hatred and describing imaginary scenarios of killing people it is not going to make refugees/economic migrants or anyone you don’t want around, suddenly disappear. Let us not forget that some of the worst episodes in human history are a result of such ethnic cleansing and with all this Rambo-style bravado talk it is frightening to think that there are those among us who might resort to putting these words into action.

It is for this reason that monitoring online comments by this new unit is needed because it needs to be made clear by the authorities that you are accountable for whatever you write on a public forum.

Advocating the return of the Holocaust can never be described as free speech.

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