Crossing the Line: Humiliation and its Online Enablers, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Oct

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We’re not going to hug it out. But we can listen to each other.  Mother of Heather Heyer who was killed in Charlottesville

Genuine dialogue, not rhetorical bomb-throwing, leads to progress. Mark Udall

Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right. Jane Goodall

It is early on a Sunday morning, and I’m in the office monitoring a series of discouraging global events highlighted (or for us lowlighted) by what appear to be indiscriminate attacks by Cameroon security forces against protestors in the largely English-speaking South West, violence breaking out in towns and cities where we have long maintained a supportive presence.

While we wait anxiously for word about friends and colleagues, there are plenty of other matters to engage our small office. Puerto Rico is still largely under water, without provisions and in the dark.   Rohingya efforts to escape abuse in Myanmar have occasioned a series of fresh tragedies amplifying already unimaginable suffering.  Cholera and civilian casualties from bombing in Yemen, human rights violations in an increasingly intransigent Burundi, referendum-related violence in Spain and Iraq and perhaps more to come in South Sudan and the DRC — all find their way on our radar. (And the DPRK looms large for many of us, especially given President Trump’s categorical dismissal of dialogue earlier today.)

What exactly, we wonder often, is the matter with us? Why is so much of our interaction with each other devoted to inflaming grievances or conducted at the point of a gun?

The UN in general and the Security Council in particular are responding to some of this dissonance.  System-wide, we have witnessed hopeful signs including the Human Rights Council’s decision to set up an independent investigation of abuses committed by all sides in Yemen’s now three year conflict. In addition, we followed a solid event organized by the President of the General Assembly on Trafficking in Persons, highlighting the vulnerabilities of forced migrants (such as in Libya and Myanmar) to predators who often and additionally traffic in weapons, narcotics and even cultural artifacts.

The Security Council held its own fruitful discussions this week, including one (finally) on the abuses of Rohingya in Myanmar briefed by the SG Guterres and another looking at the how a freshly coordinated, UN counter-terror effort can help address some of the most difficult challenges facing the system, including terror recruitment and incitement to violence through the clever, if malevolent, use of the internet.

We had what are perhaps predictable reactions to these four events.   On Yemen and Myanmar, we were grateful for the movement and discussion, but also are mindful of how ponderous UN responses can be – how many lives urgently hang in the balance while we in New York and Geneva take our time sifting through the political barriers to meaningful action.  On trafficking, this is an issue that clearly lies within the UN’s leveraging and operational capacities and on which there is considerable consensus among delegations.  If we cannot stop the bombing — and our record here is not always promising — we can at least do more to ensure that those once victimized by war are not victimized yet again through some toxic combination of vulnerability and predation.

On the “whole of UN” approach to countering terrorism and violent extremism, we note with appreciation that the Counter-Terror Executive Directorate (CTED) continues to organize excellent events for Council members and others focused on a range of matters relevant to its mandate; from the value of sanctions and “dark web” threats to the identification and control of foreign terror fighters (especially on the internet) and strategies for squeezing sources of terror financing. CTED in its new “home” under the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Committee is helping states and other stakeholders solve difficult problems, achieve a common framework of understanding and action, and identify outstanding issues that compromise effectiveness.

One of those outstanding issues has to do with our classifications of things about which we disapprove, specifically how we define matters such as “terrorist” and “incitement” and how we establish (and defend) the lines that separate terror from more legitimate dissent, incitement from more garden-variety discord.

Ultimately, in a state-driven environment like the UN, these lines are largely left to be drawn by state authorities or, in more and more cases, by large corporations that control social media and its access.  And their record in this regard is not particularly reassuring.   Regarding governments, we recall the carnage in Syria justified by unspecific references to “terror” groups as well as the mass suffering in Yemen caused by “terrorists” whom the state now believes can be eradicated through military means. In the US, apparently, white nationalist demonstrations that result in death no longer rise to the level of “incitement” if my own government’s highest officials are to be believed.

And apparently the young girl murdered earlier today by (we assume) Cameroon security forces (small photo at top) crossed some state-interpreted line. Perhaps she unwittingly received controversial material over the internet, a commonplace preoccupation of that government.  Perhaps she was simply standing next to a sign calling for regional independence. Looking at the photo of her mangled face, I can’t fathom what that line might have been, how such a line could possibly be crossed to justify the end of such a young life.

Regarding the internet, a medium of extreme interest for both state and corporate entities, there are lines to worry about here as well.   At a session this week at New York’s Roosevelt House, a UN and university-based panel noted some of the real dangers when human dialogue is replaced by threatening sound bites and vicious trolls. One of the salient features of the modern age of internet-based communications noted on the panel is its impersonal and often anonymous nature, the perfect setting to attack and humiliate people, to as one panelist noted, “bring hate speech into our private spaces.”

The point of much internet “dialogue” is not dialogue at all, but simply a platform to “sell” ideas and attack those which are deemed to be contrary, to create a spider-like web and then devour anything and everything foolish enough to come close.  The larger technology companies which are ostensibly responsible for “monitoring” digital content and use have themselves profited from this online bonanza, one that was described at Roosevelt House as the “burning cross” of our contemporary era, used far too often to intimidate and humiliate, to preserve the prerogatives of cultural and political hegemons but not so much to expand dialogue and understanding among those who might otherwise decide simply to “write each other off.”

States and technology companies seem to have proven themselves – at least to this point — to be less than capable managers of the growing threat from an internet at least as conducive to intolerance and incitement as to fostering genuine dialogue among those with legitimate, if diverse needs and worldviews.  As we examine the lines defining terrorism and incitement, we cannot, we must not, allow ourselves to cross the one which characterizes our willingness to listen and respect.  The many fires that on the UN agenda that currently singe corners across our planet will never fully extinguish so long as we allow mediums allegedly meant to “bring us together” to be used, more and more, to objectify us and tear us apart.

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