Tim Berners-Lee and a 1980s computer

VIEWERS of the SATV soap opera ‘Isidingo’ will recall Horizon Deep mayor Sechaba Matabane-Moloi being set up in a supposedly drug-induced orgy at a Christmas party by his deputy Gabriel Motusi. The devious Motusi missed an opportunity: the technology to spare him the bother and risk that the target would fail to co-operate unwittingly.

Fiction has become fact; at least to the extent that most people might not be able to tell the difference. Photographic evidence has always been highly prone to manipulation: some of the most notorious examples involved the Soviet erasure of out-of-favour leaders from the pictorial record. It has long been possible to photoshop images to give a distorted, erroneous impression. But now it is reportedly feasible to take snatches from audio recordings, recreate voices and manipulate expressions, match them with fake footage, and fabricate a totally fictitious video sequence.

In February 2018 Theresa May gave a speech in Manchester to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which extended the suffrage to some British women for the first time. May used the occasion to condemn the current coarsening of public debate and point out that this threatened the very nature of democracy. A good example was offered last year by one of her then Conservative colleagues, the outspoken anti-Brexit member of parliament Anna Soubry, who presented the House of Commons speaker with a dossier of electronic hate mail that included threats to kill her. Other MPs, notably Labour’s Dianne Abbott, have received similar levels of abuse and since then the situation has become a great deal more serious.

This is an international problem, but it has a particular twist in Britain where the gutter press uses front page headlines and unflattering photography to abuse public figures who hold perfectly rational opinions, or simply do their jobs in a way perceived as obstructing ‘the will of the people’. The dangerous word traitor is used with abandon. One expects this of the Daily Mail whose pages are fit for nothing more than lining the garbage bin; but formerly respectable titles like the Daily Telegraph are in on the act, too. This clearly fuels an epidemic of social media hate speech that should be actionable as an invasion of privacy and a threat to personal safety.

Freedom of speech is not open-ended. It is a right that carries responsibilities and one of those rules out any threat of violence. The violent, whether in thought or deed, disenfranchise themselves morally and have no place in the democratic process. But they are aided and abetted by the hypocrisy of social media platforms and popular culture.

It took a long time for reality to overcome the anodyne view that social media were an asset to democracy. Skulking behind anonymity, fake identity and different jurisdictions, cowards despatch abuse and threats with little fear of retribution. And the disgustingly rich companies that carry their messages use the fiction that they are hosts and platforms rather than legally accountable publishers. In fact, the law is fairly clear on this: any entity that disseminates the written or spoken word is directly responsible for it, together with the creator. So, this is not a legal problem; but one of enforcement. Gradually and grudgingly Facebook, Google and Twitter have accepted their responsibility to take down offensive material, but only after complaints and with considerable time delays.

In the past, gatekeepers – newspaper editors and electronic media producers and presenters – kept a tight lid on the most offensive potential content. But what used to be limited to confined spaces – living rooms and bars, for instance – has now become very public property. Electronic abuse may seem of small import in South Africa where any idea that there is democracy founders on no-go areas: some political parties cannot campaign in certain rural areas and the police simply observe. And violence is not just a distant threat, but often the very first resort.

The recent abuse, false labelling as a state agent, and promises of rape and murder directed at journalist Karima Brown after her contact details were circulated by Julius Malema commander-in-chief of the neo-fascist Economic Freedom Fighters provide a classic case of societal meltdown that appears to have no effective deterrent. And even more worrying is evidence that violence among school children is often triggered by reckless and offensive behaviour on social media platforms. This is hardly surprising: even rational adults of sober habits have despatched an intemperate email that they would never have committed to paper with a pen and about which they later had second thoughts.

It is rare for inventors to regret the consequences of their creativity. But the founder of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, admits that its early promise and hope exactly thirty years ago has been debased and fatally tarnished, so severely in fact that it is now the reverse of his ambition and a threat to democracy. Berners-Lee, unlike many social media enthusiasts, tends to use words cautiously citing ‘nastiness and misinformation’, but the disappointment is clear.

The potential for disguising lies as truth and circulating them in seconds to billions of people is catastrophic for authentic, rational discourse. Opinion can now be manipulated on a massive scale: significantly in his thirtieth anniversary interview Berners-Lee pointed to the malign role played by Cambridge Analytica in the Brexit referendum campaign. Such interference, however, is simply being brushed under the carpet – except by a few old-style journalists. Complacency is highly dangerous.