If we act truthfully, we need not worry about the lies and the liars
No sooner had this column gone out last week stridently opposing the recently passed Computer Misuse Bill than we got the perfect opportunity to test its hypothesis. A rumour went out on social media alleging that Gen Salim Saleh had died.
There were panicked phone calls and messages seeking confirmation or denials, but the truth emerged a day or two later in the best possible way. There was Gen Saleh, bursting with good health, and looking significantly more alive than dead as he gave away his daughter’s hand in marriage.
We discussed this matter with an eminent member of society who telephoned to disagree with your columnist politely but firmly. My caller has been a victim of a lot of the fake news and vile abuse that litters social media timelines. Freedom of expression is fine, he said, and must be defended. “But what should we do with someone who, either driven by malice, or financial inducements from enemies of development, poisons the village well with pure lies and vile concoctions?
In defending the right to speak out, shouldn’t we also consider the feelings of the victims and the consequences of the lies told about them, he asked? It was then that it dawned on me how deeply hurtful some of the malice online and social media can be.
One aspect of it is generational. As a repeated victim of such nonsense, your columnist, for one, has developed a thick skin and learnt to hold his nose when wading through the sewers of social media. To sue or pursue some of this miscreants is to fuel the dying embers of their insignificance with the oxygen of publicity, to rub an elixir of relevance in otherwise obscure, unremarkable existences.
But older folk struggle to ignore such abuse. They grew up in a time when social mores held firmer, when children were raised by a village, not a ghetto, when people said what they meant and meant what they said, when there was respect for elders, and when shame was still a thing.
So how are we to strike a balance, my caller asked. Shouldn’t the police go after this ‘wizard’ who pronounces people dead when they are very much alive?
No, I said, because I suspect that it might not be libellous to declare someone to be dead if they aren’t. It is certainly annoying and might raise the blood pressure of friends and relatives momentarily, but probably not defamatory.
But what if it is as a result of mischief and malice, my caller pressed, by people who know it to be false? Lies and misinformation might be amplified by social media, but they are not new. Variants of the phrase “lies travel much faster than the truth” can be found all the way back to early writers in ancient Rome. Malice is also not new to us, with many of our vernaculars observing that “the bad wishes uttered by the hen do not kill the hawk”.
A bored blogger might pronounce someone dead and the lie might travel halfway around the world before the truth has tied its laces, but the truth always clarifies. Deploying our scarce police resources on hunting down every busybody with more bandwidth than brains is not clever. In most cases the best solution is to ignore them.
Yet, while the discussion is mostly about the law, it is clear that the underlying subtext – and discussion we should be having – is about legitimacy and the rule of law. As we pointed out last week, there are many young people who are disillusioned and have lost trust in the government.
They will celebrate any setbacks or misfortunes that befall anyone they see as representative of the government because it makes them feel better. It is sad, pathetic, but not criminal.
The flip side to that, to be found in a more enlightened class, is that there are serious concerns about the rule of law and whether laws are applied freely, fairly, and not abused to silence dissent and critical voices.
Most people would not worry about any law coming out of Parliament if they were certain that the Executive would enforce it without political partisanship, and the Judiciary would interpret it independently and without fear or favour.
A quick study in the application of all manner of laws, sadly, reveals scant rule of law.
It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that in an environment of repression and selective application of the rules, any attempts to impose new controls on society will be met with resistance. If we act truthfully, we need not worry about the lies and the liars.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.