Max du Preez

Purveyors of hate

2009-10-07 08:45

When I visited Rwanda last year, I noticed that even the remotest little village had access to the internet, courtesy of MTN.

A senior government official explained that it was government policy to promote the widest possible use of the internet to prevent a repeat of the vicious campaign of hatred perpetrated by radio stations and newspapers leading to the 1994 genocide.

"Our people's access to all information in the globe will see to it that no-one can lie to us, brainwash us and make us hate each other again," he told me.

I liked his thinking. That's the great thing about the internet: censorship is virtually impossible.

But here at home the internet seems to play exactly the opposite role. Local websites have become the purveyors of hate and intolerance.

And let's face it, the internet is the absolutely ideal vehicle for bigots, fascists and extremists. You sit in your own little office or bedroom, just you and your laptop, and you can pretend to be very powerful, because you can anonymously insult anyone and write down the basest thoughts that enter your little mind and within minutes the whole world can read it.

The worst case example is the large number of rightwing extremist South African websites where the most obscene racism is perpetrated daily.

But the "mainstream" websites like those of the daily and weekly newspapers and yes, like News24.com and Litnet.co.za, are also sometimes guilty of hosting and indirectly encouraging mindless bigotry, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia in their chat rooms.

I have been a newspaper columnist for more than a decade. I'm used to readers disagreeing with me and stating that in strong terms on the letters page.

But most of the time they use their real names and they counter my arguments, rather than just calling me names. The same happens when I take part in debates on radio, as I did three times this past week.

My columns on News24.com don't elicit the same reaction. Most people simply call me a racist or a traitor to the white cause and wish me ill in all kinds of ways. Very few make the effort to counter my arguments.

The answer is of course not to shut down or limit access to the internet like the Chinese and North Koreans did.

The answer is for mainstream websites like News24.com to resist the temptation to go for the largest number of hits and to invest in building a reputation of reliability, credibility, open-mindedness and tolerance instead.

Just before I wrote this, I read the letter by one MyNews24 User Setumo Stone on News24.com. I don't know if Stone is a real person, because the thought crossed my mind that this piece could have been written by a white reactionary trying to be an agent provocateur.

"I'm convinced that Julius Malema is holding the torch of African liberation very high. There could be no better approach to the African Renaissance," wrote Stone.

Can that be real? I know there are many who like Malema's crude, brutish statements and insults to minorities, because they feel bitter and marginalised and they perhaps feel he speaks for them. But certainly no-one who can write a letter with proper grammar on a computer can call Malema the champion of the African Renaissance?

Stone's piece was followed by screen after screen of insults and racist vulgarities. Here is an example of one response to Stone's letter: "AWB for a win! Vang hulle en hang hulle. I say to you now - Caster Semenya he is a woman."

Come on. That kind of nonsense should not be published by a reputable institution like News24. In fact, I would argue the piece by "Setumo Stone" should also have been sent to the Recycle Bin.

He doesn’t even know what the “sunset clause” was that he blames for the "grip" he says whites have on the economy and the public sector.

My suspicion was that News24 decided to publish this piece only because they thought it would elicit many responses, not because it had any merit as a contribution to the public discourse.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for robust debate and I appreciate a really well-written insult or a sharp one-liner. But the stuff I've been seeing on South African websites is no better than the insults of "jou ma se..." one often hears on the streets of Cape Town.

I'm not pleading for censorship. I have a long history (and accompanying criminal record) of fighting against that.

I'm asking for a form of quality control. One of the most influential, credible and interesting websites in the world is huffingtonpost.com. They would never host the kind of trash that has become standard fare in South Africa.

Exchanging racial insults is not an intelligent, reasonable activity.

Send your comments to Max

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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