Most of the Internet is not a safe space for civil discourse


Most of the Internet is not a safe space for civil discourse
By Zan Azlee

I am going to admit that ever since Pakatan Harapan won the last general elections, the scene in the media and press industry has changed. There has not been any intimidation of the press such as the detention of journalists or even the raids of newsrooms and offices.

Also, for most parts, many journalists have been able to report on anything they want and see as significant. Stories and reports that are critical towards the current administration are even allowed to be published and broadcast. Of course, there will be reaction and comments from all sides, but that’s how it’s supposed to be.

The vague laws crafted and enacted by the previous administration that can be manipulated and abused still exist. So basically, we’re all just surviving and keeping the faith that the government will not suddenly start using these oppressive laws. That’s why it’s important we start changing them as soon as possible.

But the laws are not what I want to discuss today (although it is very concerning too). So, here’s the thing: The fact that the media and press are becoming freer also means that society will have the opportunity to voice their thoughts, opinions and concerns. And what better avenue for them to do all this if not social media and the Internet?

As much as the Internet allows freedom of speech and provides accessibility to a platform, society can be very brutal and unfair too. Most of the time, when an issue is being discussed, the dominant thought on it can dictate the biasness of how it is discussed and a lot of judgment can come out of it, which is definitely not a good thing.

Without evidence

Take for example trendy and popular issues like gender equality, sexual harassment, and racism. Of course, the general consensus is that everyone is for gender equality and against sexual harassment and racism. But nothing is ever black and white, and hence, discourse and debate will occur. Unfortunately, it is seldom allowed to happen.

Loud, enraged, and biased voices on the Internet have the potential to shut down different perspectives and discussions. It can almost be compared to a trial by fire or even a mob lynching, so much so that people don’t even want to throw in their opinions (which could be legitimate and valid) into the ring to be discussed.

We’ve all seen it happen on the Internet where social media shaming can happen due to assumptions, without even the slightest shred of concrete proof and evidence. And when that happens, the keyboard warriors’ attacks can be so severe that when the realisation that a mistake has happened, it may be too late to save a person’s reputation or career.

I can bet you that I may even be picked out and bashed once this article is published just because I chose to use gender equality and sexual harassment as examples. It doesn’t matter what the context or issue of discussion is. I will be condemned to hell just for having a different view from the loud voices. We’ll see.

Change my view

This goes against everything that is freedom of speech because the people themselves don’t provide a safe space for discussion without judgment. It becomes no different than a time long ago when there were only a few watchdogs determining what is published and what isn’t.

But, I recently discovered that some people on the Internet are trying to change that. ‘Change My View’ is a subreddit message board started by Kal Turnbull. It’s a place where people can post their thoughts hoping for others to prove them wrong through logical and rational arguments.

How it works is if you have an opinion that you are holding on so strongly and realise that you could benefit from a different perspective, you open yourself up and invite people to prove you wrong. You create a post on ‘Change My View’ and wait for the discussion points to flow. It is important that you keep an open mind, always respond and interact.

If you don’t respond within three hours of any comment, the discussion closes. If, after considerable discussion, the submitter still does not want to change his or her view, the discussion closes. After a discussion closes, everyone moves on. No one is supposed to be looking for a fight.

The message board is, of course, moderated. People who are rude, make too many mindless jokes or those who just mindlessly agree to everything will be expelled. The result is a tight group that is genuinely interested in encouraging and participating in civil and constructive discourse.

But, because it requires moderation, it is also proof that society still can’t be trusted to engage in civil discussion. Until people learn that no matter what side of the spectrum you are, being extreme just means being narrow-minded, we will never progress. For now, I will just take comfort that there are at least some people who are trying to create safe spaces for discourse.

[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]

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