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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

T&T Guardian columnist Paolo Kernahan reported in his last column“A deluge of scorn for flood victims” appalling Facebook posts in the wake of last week’s disastrous flooding. The posts proposed that flood victims were trying to scam the government for compensation by deliberately losing crops, homes and livelihoods.

From another source, I saw a couple of Facebook posts about a member of the judiciary with an Indian name, which again questioned his integrity, on ethnic grounds. I’m no lawyer, but doesn’t “contempt of court” describe these posts? And outside of the specifically offensive, there are also the garden-variety Facebook posts which routinely evince animus on a variety of other issues.

Some years ago, this was the kind of thing you’d have to call in to i95.5 to say and hear, or wait for the Carnival season to go to a calypso tent. But Facebook has brought a more sophisticated delivery system for hate speech and social poison.

I’m not on Facebook, but I can’t escape it. People send me screen shots of posts and exchanges which are stomach-turning, and which I have no intention of reproducing here. From what I’ve seen, it seems pretty clear the purveyors of this poison need to be introduced to the idea of consequences.

A good place to start is with those “personalities” who question the judge’s integrity being charged with contempt of court, if the action is in contempt. I have no idea what’s holding back the judiciary. Maybe if they thought of Facebook corbeaus as young black men caught with a few grams of marijuana they’d leap into action. At any rate they should get a move on.

But I’m also aware this isn’t a clear-cut thing. Some well-meaning people and many ignorant people will reflexively protest this on the general principle of “freedom of speech.” They would be repeating a mistake made with talk radio, from which the society still hasn’t recovered.

Before we even get to that principle, important to note is that what I’m proposing above is happening in real countries. Harvard (it was reported in the US media) in early June revoked the acceptance of ten students because of offensive Facebook posts. In the UK, since 2012, new guidelines have been established for the prosecution of social media offenders.

In the wake of the recent transition of power in the US, a public official was fired for social media posts offensive to the former First Lady, Michelle Obama. On May 30, the British Telegraph reported that a Swiss man who “liked” a FB post accusing another man of racism and anti-Semitism was convicted of defamation.

So other countries are beginning to respond to the very real danger posed by “social” media. As to the principle of freedom of speech, in Trinidad and Tobago that freedom is mitigated by libel laws, obscene language laws, and subjudice and contempt of court laws. In other countries, legislation addresses things like hate speech, but apparently not here.

If the last two decades have shown anything, it’s that absolute freedom in the hands of Trinidadians is like a box of matches in the hands of an unsupervised, disturbed child. Add to this the whole “fake news” phenomenon, about made-up things creating very real consequences, and you have the recipe for yet another social crisis to add to our impressive collection. Outside of the freedom issue, a few more mitigating factors exist. First, it’s not clear what the true extent of the problem is. Is it a small number of users? Is it widespread? Even if it’s a small number of users, poison doesn’t need to be administered in large quantities.

Unfortunately there’s no information on which to base judgments. Despite three universities, billions spent on education and mandates for producing research, no usable local research on Facebook, or anything except endless, quasi-fictional reams of garbage on Carnival and slavery, exists. Or if so, it’s not available to the public.

Then there’s the potential for political abuse of legislation governing social media. In the first place, there could be selective prosecution initiated by official agencies. Think of Basdeo Panday being the only person prosecuted for not filing integrity declaration forms, despite literally hundreds of violations published in the newspapers.

In the second place, legislation or regulation could be used by politicians and the rich to prevent legitimate criticism, or even factual statements about themselves. Libel laws have been used for this purpose in Trinidad for many years, and it’s led to the gilding of the media. But it seemingly hasn’t affected the penchant for mauvais langue, or its destructive effects.

So Facebook jail is not a straight-forward thing, but the Facebook pathology needs to be addressed. It would be useless to “make a call” for new legislation or more efficient policing of social media. The police are hopelessly corrupt and incompetent. The DPP’s office functions like a Star Chamber: mystical and opaque. The Opposition has recently begun to initiate litigation on issues like the property tax and the Judicial and Legal Service Commission’s constitution. Facebook hate speech would be a much more useful area to pursue this legislative strategy.

The stakes are high here. Facebook, whatever its original intention, has become a medium of great destructiveness. This is one of those instances of the natural tendency to push where there’s no resistance, turning toxic. Fantastically ignorant Facebook “personalities” are acquiring followings because of the platform’s design and because they channel the baser urges—remember, this is the land where KFC is the national dish and porn the pastime. Facebook has become a similar phenomenon. Something needs to be done.


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