The unethical space

BY MAYA RANGANATHAN| IN Media Practice | 24/11/2008
What began as a potential public sphere is now steadily transforming into the most unethical of all media.
MAYA RANGANATHAN says cyber warfare now seems to be moving more towards slander and vilification.

On Nov 19, 2008, The Age in Melbourne carried a bottom spread on how one of the Mayoral candidates, Catherine Ng, googled her name only to find that what came up was an appeal to vote for another mayoral candidate. The article titled ‘Googled! Mayoral race turns to cyber warfare’ hinted that the candidate has perhaps been paying the popular search engine Google to ensure that all searches for lord mayoral candidates led to an appeal to vote for him!


This perhaps signals the progression of electioneering from door-to-door campaigns to public meetings, to sms appeals to cyberspace but more significantly it calls into question the issue of ethics in cyberspace. As The Age posed, is it ‘a legitimate use of technology? Or a questionable act of cyber warfare?’


Today, spamming and hacking as tools of cyber warfare are passé. They are perhaps the unsophisticated weapons of online terrorists. Cyber warfare now seems to be moving more towards slander and vilification, that cannot quite be termed ‘terrorism’ but can nevertheless silence and ‘exterminate’ the dissenter.


What began as a potential public sphere is now steadily transforming into the most unethical of all media. For the same attributes that evoked projections of a democratic medium lend themselves so easily to misuse that cyberspace is today the most effective tool for slander and abuse. The fact that the technology requires so little in terms of investment and expertise allows anyone to (mis)use it and the fact that it transgresses physical and geographical boundaries divests the user of considerations that dictate the other media that are bound by physical boundaries and perhaps journalistic principles.


Thus, Malini Parthasarathy and N Ram editorialising in The Hindu, Chennai, on the Sri Lankan issue for an Indian readership familiar with Indian thought and ideology, was critiqued by an online website catering predominantly to the Sri Lankan Tamils. While none can question the right of one to disagree or to question or even condemn a piece that has been written for public consumption, it is the manner in which it is done that calls for attention.


The passionate denouncements of the arguments are preceded by an uncomplimentary biography prefacing articles titled ‘Malini Parthasarathy’s malodorous malady’ and ‘The naivete and rascality of Narasimhan Ram’. While Ms Parthasarathy’s assertions are termed a ‘bold-faced lie’, the critic repeats an unsavoury pun on the word ‘Ram’ before countering his assertions. While Ms Parthasarathy and Mr Ram’s pictures are featured, the critics themselves are not so clearly identified. There are definitely no biographical accounts and while one author writes in his name, the other’s comments go in the name of the website.


If objectivity is fast disappearing in media world-wide, it is perhaps the first casualty online. With the blurring of news and views online, what is confounding for a casual reader is just where does objectivity give way to subjectivity? And what is the role of ethics online?


A young freelance online journalist, poet and blogger writing under a pseudonym on Sri Lankan Tamil affairs said he continues unfazed despite doubts having been raised about his sexuality online. Not only was an article published about him online but also a picture taken at a wedding reception he attended reproduced to put a face to the name so he could be easily identified by the readers. But not many have the courage to continue. Infamy breeds like rabbits in cyberspace. And as what is on cyberspace, at least technically, remains for all to see for ever and ever, for the not-so-strong hearted it can indeed be a debilitating experience.


The personal details and the photographs that easily circulate in the virtual world make it possible for anyone to construct a dossier online. As this writer found out to her dismay, not long ago one of the articles written for the The on Indian media was pulled out of context and reproduced with an outdated biographical account and comment, complete with a picture and earlier posting to another website extracted from the www, forcing the writer to send an explanation to the website editor who remained safely anonymous. As trends go, this article too might be reproduced with comments and condemnations and multiply itself in the most unethical media space!









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