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COLUMN

socmed trollDECEMBER 22 — There have been growing calls to regulate Facebook and other social media platforms like Twitter, with former Facebook executives attacking the tech giant and painting it as an evil company.

Chamath Palihapitiya, who was Facebook’s vice-president for user growth, said social media was “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works” due to “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops.”

No civil discourse, no co-operation, misinformation, mistruth.”
Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker said last month that the social media giant exploited “a vulnerability in human psychology”, with features such as the “like” button that was created to give users “a little dopamine hit” to encourage them to put up more content.

Besides comparing social media to drug addiction, former Google, Twitter and Facebook workers have even warned the world of a smartphone “dystopia” and the potential destruction of democracy.

The concern in America relating to Facebook, Google and Twitter is about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, amid revelations of political advertisements, including fake news, on Facebook paid for by Russian money, as well as Russian-created Twitter bots.

In Malaysia, the government keeps ranting about fake news on social media, including on WhatsApp which is owned by Facebook. Politicians frequently accuse each other of propagating fake news and propaganda too.

Facebook has its flaws, but it is an exaggeration to proclaim the end of democracy (and essentially the world) because of the proliferation of social media.

Granted, social media has made it much easier to spread “fake news”, or what used to be junk mail and chain emails. While many still share fake news on WhatsApp, such as a video falsely depicting an Israeli policeman of strangling a Palestinian boy (it was actually a Swedish security guard in Sweden who was sitting on a Moroccan boy and holding his hands over his mouth back in 2015), others are sometimes quick to call out such hoaxes.

In any case, Facebook has started taking steps to flag fake news and to work with fact-checkers.

As a business, Facebook is not obligated to be a force for good, though it often spouts lofty visions for the world.

Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp are merely platforms for anyone and everyone to share their thoughts on anything and everything.

Some people’s opinions align with ours, others seem utterly horrifying. We also share news reports, videos, articles and posts on topics from politics to veganism, some of which may be factually incorrect or completely false.

The responsibility to double check facts before forwarding them on social media lies with us, not with the platform. All it takes is just a few seconds to Google a sensational-sounding post first before sharing it. And it is people who tell lies and spread mistruths who should be held responsible, not the social media platform.

Political propaganda should not necessarily be confused with fake news either. Each side will always promote news or viewpoints favourable to them, though politicians are also liable to spreading factual inaccuracies.

The advent of the internet, social media and smartphones has enabled everyone, from celebrities to ordinary people, to be both media consumers and producers.

While I wouldn’t say that such technology has completely replaced journalists, who are responsible for producing verified and balanced news, social media and smartphones have gone some way in taking out the media as the middleman.

Instead of reading news websites (or newspapers the next day) to find out what’s happening in a street protest, all we have to do is scroll through timelines on Facebook and Twitter to see videos and posts from participants themselves in real-time.

Interested in a public figure? Just follow them on social media. No need to wait for news about them.

Facebook should also not be blamed for creating ideological echo chambers by showing users only content that align with their beliefs, which result in strengthening their socio-political stances and pushing them further to the right or left.

Facebook is merely giving people what they want. Why should Facebook be expected to give its customers an undesirable product, even if showing people what they don’t want to see may make them more open to alternative ideas?

Plus, Facebook is a free product. It’s not taking people’s money (though it is taking our data which we give voluntarily). If we don’t like it, we can opt out any time (which I have).

I no longer post comments or share my thoughts on articles on Facebook or Twitter; I just use the platforms to post my column and any news reports I write, as well as to host my Boo’s Morning Brew weekly show. I’ve stopped using Instagram too.

Facebook and Twitter are just not interesting anymore. I don’t really care what my friends are reading or what they had for lunch. I find it pointless and a complete waste of time to engage in long Facebook debates with my critics or anyone else because the internet rarely changes people’s minds.

I have my own favourite news outlets whose websites I manually visit every day (The Washington Post and Guardian for international news). Some of my friends personally send me articles to read too, including socially conservative pieces which would not typically appear on my timeline.

I’ve also stopped using Facebook because it sometimes brings out the troll in me, like when I see people mindlessly attacking Taylor Swift.

It is not Facebook’s job to make people nicer and more open-minded. They are just a business at the end of the day.

The beauty of social media is the complete democratisation of space for opinions. This very beauty is also what makes the internet so ugly.

People of all stripes, colours and ideology turn into absolute monsters when they are offended online. Liberals can be just as toxic as conservatives.

Speakers at a forum last week on ”rape and hate online“, which was organised by Empower at Art for Grabs, indicated support for some form of regulation to prevent online harassment and so-called “violence”, but were silent on whether attacks on people for posting comments perceived as racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic should similarly be banned.

Porn star August Ames, who was 23, recently killed herself after she was attacked online when she tweeted a warning about performing with a man who has shot gay porn. A fellow porn star had tweeted at Ames to apologise or to “swallow a cyanide pill”.

There have also been cases of Americans losing their jobs due to online outrage over their social media posts that were considered socially inappropriate.

As horrific as Ames’ suicide was, I don’t believe that social media should be regulated.

Empower launched something called “Net Rangers”, described as a collective that wants to “prevent, push back, and resist all forms of harassment and violence online” in its goal to reclaim the internet as a “safe and open space that enables everyone to claim, construct and express ourselves, genders, sexualities and thoughts.”

In a country like Malaysia which is heavily centralised and where the government is involved in almost every aspect of our lives, the last thing we need is internet regulation by wannabe vigilantes, especially if the do-gooders come from only side of the socio-political spectrum.

If we want complete freedom to say whatever we want, including to happily curse someone and to call for their sacking over a mere tweet or Facebook post that we find completely offensive, then we must accord others the same liberty to say racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic things and to be just as nasty to us.

Advocacy of violence, of course, is not considered protected speech, nor is releasing someone’s personal details online.

Having said that, people make online wishes for the deaths of their country’s leaders (or other people they dislike) quite frequently. As someone who has received rape and death threats, I would argue that not all online threats should be taken seriously.

Individuals must judge for themselves if their attackers are just being trolls or if the threats are highly specific, which indicate a degree of intent.

So-called “violence” on the internet is illusory and downplays actual, physical violence. Cyberbullying among children and teenagers, of course, is an issue that merits attention, but it should not be confused with issues of free speech online as cyberbullying is, at the core, a matter of bullying.

Online insults by strangers (who can easily be blocked with the click of a button) can never compare to a loved one telling you to your face that he wants to strangle and rape you and proceeds to sexually assault you.

The internet is as safe and open as we want to make it. That includes saying whatever we want to say and extending the same freedom to others who do not share the same opinions and who may be mean to us.

We should not try to legislate everything as there is a cost to enacting and enforcing laws. We cannot force people to be nice.

If we find Facebook and Twitter to be horrible cesspools filled with trolls, we can always log out. Or we can choose to endure any temporary online outrage (which usually does not lead to real-life consequences in Malaysia like job terminations) and continue to post our opinions in the firm belief that we should be heard.