Thursday, July 24, 2014

Social Media Number Games

In 2011, just after Kumar Sangakkara stepped down from the captaincy of Sri Lanka cricket team, a protest was organized through facebook to demand him back as captain. This was organized in the backdrop of the dramatic fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. Thousands said online that they will join the gathering at Independent Square. Not even 20 came.

Speaking at “Forum with Eran” moderated by UNP Parliamentarian Eran Wickremaratne, Groundviews Editor Sanjana Hattotuwa stated that he was extremely disturbed by the amount of hate speech that was circulating through social media, especially in various groups on facebook against the Muslim Community. He stated that he had identified about 35 such groups and each one has over 12,000 members. While the membership of these groups does not add up to 12,000 times 35 (which will be an alarming 420,000) Sanjana correctly stated that the attack directed towards the Muslim Community was organized and vituperative.

Sanjana then stated a very valid point. The anti- Muslim hate on social media is greater that the hate against Tamils even at the height of the war.

Even though I did not state this at that time, Sanjana’s comment on numbers reminded me of the Sangakkara episode. Furthermore, there were several important factors to be considered in discussing this and he pointed out one of them while forgetting another.

In social media culture, even one person could sometimes do harm as he correctly pointed out. However, by saying so, he negated the argument about the numbers he had already stated. I was reminded of the Mongol battle tactics from several centuries back.

When riding into the enemy territory, one Mongol soldier will light more than one campfire at night, giving the impression that the invading army was several times the true size. The defender usually was mortally scared by both the preceding reputation of Mongols and the perceived numbers. By giving a false impression on the numbers the Mongols won half the battle.

If we look at the people who are disseminating hate speech online, one could find that there are only a few real personalities. Most of them are using fake accounts with patriotic sounding names. I know for a fact that a single person can keep a number of fake profiles. Hence, a handful of people can successfully maintain a group like that with little difficulty.

Another reason why I say that numbers do not count is my personal experience on facebook. I am an administrator of two groups, one with a membership of 12,000 and the other with nearly 40,000. But even in the second group which is extremely active, only a maximum of a hundred members are really active. People come in droves for various reasons, especially when the group is larger. It has come to a rate of growth where it takes only about a week for the membership to increase by another thousand. But only a handful of these new members are really active in the group. Others come in and then forget it.

I’m sure Bodu Bala Sena or other radical groups from any religion will ‘sell’ more than general knowledge, music or films. However, this has not come about only social media. Social media did lay some ground work sometime after the end of the war. But it would have been on the fringe if they had remained on the cyber space. It is only because they came to the streets that the BBS has become an online phenomenon of this magnitude.

The same can be said about radical groups among non-Buddhist groups around the world. Somalia’s Al Shebab and Iraq’s ISIS rebels are very much active on social media. If we take their activity on face value, one might say that they are a huge force. On the contrary, they are relatively small groups. They have given the impression that they are larger due to several reasons, weak government response being one. In Sri Lanka, while we discuss about the BBS, we never hear anything about radical Islamic groups. Research into this has to be carried out as soon as possible. Perhaps they are laying the ground for their activities on social media, just like the BBS (in some form) was doing four years back.

Sanjana’s other argument on comparing the attacks on Tamil Community and the Muslim Community, was made without considering several factors. Five years ago, internet was not a widely available commodity like today. Even I obtained an internet connection for home usage in only 2009. While I was never a tech savvy person, a majority of Sri Lankans are the same. But internet has become such an easy place to access, compared to 2009. Among the privileged crowd that used internet in their homes by 2009, one cannot expect hate speech to the magnitude we see now.

Also, the environment was totally different. Whatever said and done the Sri Lankan armed forces carried out a humanitarian operation, separating the rebel from the civilian whenever possible and saving tens of thousands of them from the clutches of terrorists. The distinction between terrorists and people was always emphasized almost on a daily basis.

No fascist or other radical group cares about numbers because they do not care about democracy. Same goes to radical religious groups in any form. However, the vituperative nature of the language and attitude of these groups is such that saner people who are the majority even on social media just stay away. It is high time they raised their voices and make numbers really count.

(This article first appeared in 'The Nation' on Sunday July 20, 2014).

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