Max du Preez

The good and evil of the internet

2011-01-19 13:35

Our society urgently needs to be educated about what is good and what is evil about the internet – and that it will never go away and can never really be controlled.

The ANC as the ruling party is a case in point: Julius Malema wanted to close down Twitter when people tweeted in his name, and this week spokesperson Jackson Mthembu demanded that social media control their content after tweeters sent the fake story that Nelson Mandela had died.

Instead of strong-arm tactics, Mthembu should use Twitter and Facebook himself if he wants to counter lies and rumours in cyberspace.

But they’re not the only ones. Students and even journalists have been known to do much of their research on the internet, mostly with disastrous consequences.

I know someone who regularly searches the vast number of medical websites and who has in the last year diagnosed himself with several of humanity’s most interesting diseases. My friend is still alive and physically well, although he doesn’t think so – and his GP is laughing all the way to the bank.

Enlightening yet unreliable

The internet is the most exciting thing that has happened in my lifetime. I cannot imagine a working or relaxing day without it.

It can save lives, it can enlighten, it can mobilise against tyranny and it is the most powerful reminder that the world has actually become one village.

At the same time it is utterly unreliable, the perfect vehicle for hate and intolerance and a potentially dangerous instrument in the hands of freaks and extremists. These elements, by their very nature not democrats, always wage their vile campaigns in the name of free speech.

That’s just the nature of the beast. I can’t see anyone ever fully controlling cyberspace or closing it down, not even China or North Korea, and certainly not the ANC. The internet cannot be killed off.

But ordinary decent citizens do have the power to decide how they use the internet and how it affects them.

Powerful giants

The first thing to realise is that information on the internet is mostly untested. Anyone can put anything on a website or on social media. The trick is to find out which websites have a solid reputation for credibility and balance, or to turn to the mainstream media (radio, television, newspapers) for confirmation before one believes a new revelation.

I also heard of Mandela’s so-called death via the internet. I was alarmed, and immediately switched on my radio and searched the news columns of News24. When there was nothing, I assumed it had to be just a malicious rumour.

It is as important to realise that the smallest, dumbest, most insecure little guy becomes a powerful giant in his own eyes when he sits down in front of his computer and sends his anonymous blogs or comments all over cyberspace.

The same guy would never utter the same things in public or in a letter to a newspaper. Or if his name had to be attached to the comments.

I read the comments on Mandela on this and other South African websites after the Twitter story broke. Dozens and dozens of hate-filled messages calling Mandela a k.....r, a terrorist, a sub-human and a dog and expressing joy at his death.

I also read the vilest comments about my friend Jannie Momberg, the former ANC MP who was buried this week. Rot in hell, one blogger wrote, calling Momberg a snake and a traitor to Afrikanerdom.

Quality control

We tolerate these excesses in the name of free speech. And yet tolerating and disseminating this kind of vitriol and hate speech so undermines the vehicle that carries it that it loses its value as a forum for information and opinion.

In the end it works against the idea of a free exchange of information and opinion.

I have decided to avoid websites, even mainstream ones, where comments and debates are not guided by strong guidelines and where participants do not have to register before they can take part in discussions. Life is too short to spend time reading the fruits of disturbed people’s basest instincts.

I’m not advocating censorship, just a bit of sensible quality control. The freaks and the hate mongers can spew forth their filth on their own websites.

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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