Old racists weaving a new web

2011-02-19 12:07

Is the internet the last hiding place in South Africa for ­racists and ­bigots who seem to be intoxicated by the anonymity it offers?

When you read the reactions to any story posted online in South ­Africa, you get a sense that many of those who commented were ready with their poison ­beforehand, fixed in their beliefs, unwilling to engage on the ­details of the article.

What does it say about our ­society that so many show the middle finger to the notion of ­social progress implicit in much of news reportage?

Some subjects receive responses so predictable that it has become laughable, such as when a ­government entity is linked to any mention of corruption.

One often wonders whether some of the comments in fact constitute hate speech. Cyberspace is plainly apartheid’s ­refuge.

Strewn all over the web you find the old stereotypes and prejudices that were the order of Verwoerd’s heyday.

The patterns are the same, involving fixed ideas about who is ­corrupt, who is trustworthy, who is competent and who can be ­relied on to screw things up.

It is remarkable how even the most ­“innocent” story can generate the most vitriolic comments, as bigots let loose.

It is the digital equivalent of road rage.

Facts, of course, are of no ­consequence: any rational contradiction of a bigot’s posting is simply met with more vitriol.

Try to construct any kind of ­argument, and prepare for the ­vuvuzelas of hate.

“What did you expect from these corrupt people?” is a ­standard, easy and lazy line.A case in point is an article on Moneyweb titled Election Meltdown in Africa.

It elicited this incredibly ­offensive comment: “You can’t expect it to be any different on a continent where tribalism and not capitalism perseveres. It all boils down to ethnicity, or more accurately – one baboon fighting for his/her troupe!”

In the same story another reader ­comments: “It does not matter who wins – the result will still ­always be the same. The one tribe will always attack the other – those with the biggest population will win. The winner loots the country, begs for aid and the ­process starts over.”

But for all the blinkeredness of South Africa’s blogosphere, ­elsewhere in Africa we have been shown a completely ­different use to which the ­internet can be put.

In Tunisia we saw a stubborn tyrant dislodged through a popular uprising that harnessed the power of social media to communicate quickly and bypass ­draconian censorship.

The same elements have played a ­pivotal role in radically altering politics in Egypt, with Jordan and Yemen on the horizon.

What a refreshing example these people are setting – using the web as a force for change, rather than as a fence over which to trade gossip and insults. In South ­Africa, however, the practice of online hating is a growth industry.

To their credit, some of the country’s leading online media have taken steps to contain it by ensuring there are no “anonymous” comments on their sites.

They make it so that even where users can adopt pseudonyms, their real email addresses are known, and it is ­interesting to see that on these sites there is correspondingly less of the ­uncontrolled bigotry found elsewhere.

Perhaps it is time for South ­Africa’s online media to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on hate speech.

We urgently need to curb the rise of the digital bigots that haunt our national conversation online.

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