Over the past decade or so there has been a massive shift in the way we communicate with each other. Gone are the days of speaking face-to-face; we now prefer to communicate through a Facebook post or a message on X.
Whether we use them or not, social media dominate our life. There has been a rise in the number of trolls and predators that lurk the dark corners of the internet. Threats, and horrific insults flood media networks. Much of online dissent is neither healthy nor civil.
Recently, major advertisers like IBM and Disney pulled out of X as a result of a new report from Media Matters which showed that X is placing paid promotions alongside pro-Nazi material in-stream. The EU’s executive arm also announced that it had told its services to stop advertising on Elon Musk’s social media platform after a surge in disinformation and hate speech.
“We have seen an alarming increase in disinformation and hate speech on several social media platforms in recent weeks and X is certainly quite affected,” European Commission spokesman Johannes Bahrke said. “We have concerns that our content appears in an inappropriate context,” he added. The probe was one of a raft launched by Brussels against internet giants under Europe’s new Digital Services Act (DSA), which requires them to crack down on content deemed illegal.
Online predators who fling insults are emboldened by the internet’s alluring anonymity and can’t give it up. Technology has introduced new words, changed the meaning of others, and has even introduced new forms of language and communication. The trend and prevalence of people intentionally offending others online is growing by the day.
Like we cannot just run into a crowded cinema and yell “fire”, it is illegal to make thoughtless comments about a person when there is no credible proof that they are true. Many of the irresponsible allegations or claims we see on the social media are crimes and could land those who make them in jail.
Free speech has never been a total right. There are a handful of restrictions applied to speech in Malta in order to safeguard peace in our society. For example, the Courts put limits on speech containing fighting words, defamation, slander, and other language that jeopardises national security, or directly incites violence. All speech that directly intimidates minority groups or those more likely to be oppressed can be prosecuted. Hate speech is not an authentic form of speech, as some claim.
Though it is practically impossible for the Police to monitor all social media for these types of crimes, the victims can still take the perpetrators to court. Dozens of people, including a priest, have been prosecuted for hate speech. Recently, a Facebook comment calling for Opposition MP Karol Aquilina to be “stoned in the middle of the village square” earned a man from Siġġiewi a fine of €300 and a two-year conditional discharge. Another court ordered the arrest of a man who wrote on Facebook that he would have doused the president of NGO Repubblika Robert Aquilina with acid for affixing a sign that reads ‘Joseph Muscat Prim Korrott’ to the door of Muscat’s private office.
What possesses somebody to use this languiage, when they could still criticise the people concerned in strong, but correct, language? As the magistrate in one of the cases said, “Whether you intended or didn’t have the intention to cause harm, these types of comments create a great danger. They can incite violence. Today they don’t use stones so much in our part of the world, but we have [other] weapons and hot heads.”
Sweden’s Supreme Court was recently reported to have thrown out an appeals court ruling acquitting a man of raping a 10-year-old girl because it had been unsure what the word she used for her vagina meant. The girl had used the word “snippa”, devised by the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU) in the early 2000s and introduced in preschools as a neutral and informal term to destigmatise women’s genitals. It is intended to be the female equivalent of the existing and commonly-used word “snopp” for male genitalia, and has rapidly grown in usage since its introduction.
Despite agreeing with a district court that the man had touched the girl between her legs and inserted his finger into her snippa, the appeals court found that it could not be determined whether the girl was referring to her vulva or to her vagina. If the man had inserted his finger into her vagina, that would have met the standard to be classified as rape. But because the girl said that his finger was “far in”, but could not state exactly how far, the appeals court found that it could not establish beyond doubt that the man had inserted his finger in her vagina and not her vulva. It therefore threw out the verdict and cleared the man of the charge.
On referral to the Supreme Court, this then ruled that the appeals court had committed a miscarriage of justice in not considering a lower-grade charge. According to the high court, the incident could have been classified as sexual abuse or molestation and therefore the appeals court was required to have a retrial.
This episode shows how certain people can wriggle out of rape charges by finding loopholes or loose language in the laws and get away with it. The victims are always at a disadvantage in trying to prove that they did not consent to having sex, apart from which some defence lawyers do not hesitate at making the victims feel raped a second time by their aggressive questions and language.
Malta is no exception. Rape cases heard in the court recently include that against a 41-year-old man accused of the act at a diner in Birkirkara. The man was alleged to have attacked a woman and inflicted grievous bodily harm with a sharp and pointed instrument, as well as holding the woman against her will. The accused is apparently no saint, having been further accused of the possession and supplying of cocaine, disobeying the police’s legitimate orders, and breaching bail conditions that had been imposed on him in June 2022.
A second case concerned a 17-year-old girl allegedly raped by her ex-boyfriend while her 16-year-old male friend was beaten in an eight-hour attack by a gang of male youths on holiday in Malta. The court heard details of the alleged incident, described by the prosecuting inspector as one of the most serious crimes he had ever investigated.
Unfortunately, many rape victims still do not report such assaults. Too many still don’t think that their words would mean anything against those of the perpetrator. Women reporting serious sexual assaults can face intense scrutiny and cultural bias. Moreover, when such assaults are reported in the social media, many misogynists rush to question the veracity of the women’s claims, challenging them over their own behaviours, and often questioning why it took so long for them to come forward. This is the classic victim-blaming and shaming behaviour and acts as a deterrent to vulnerable victims.
Not many victims and their close family or friends are aware that we have a Care for Victims of Sexual Assault (CVSA) service to support and assist sexual assault and rape victims aged 16yrs+. Support is given through social work services, psychological services, legal representation or consultation and liaison with hospital and the police. This service should be advertised regularly.
Osama on TikTok
Over the past few weeks TikTok ̶ a platform with an estimated 1.6 billion monthly active users ̶ has been removing hundreds of videos discussing a manifesto Osama bin Laden wrote in 2002 titled ‘Letter to America’, which somewhat mysteriously resurfaced on the platform. The letter was written a year after al Qaeda planned the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001. Some TikTok creators shared the document against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war emphasising bin Laden’s criticism of the US government’s role in the Middle East and support of Israel.
As social media researchers pored over publicly available data on just how widespread the bin Laden content had been on TikTok, one thing became clear: the videos did not appear, at first, to have gone viral. There were fewer than 300 videos using the hashtag #lettertoamerica that garnered around 2 million views in a few days, according to TikTok. For comparison, at around the same time, a 24-hour period on the platform had 200 million videos using #GymTok and #travel videos racked up 137 million.
It is rather strange that neither the original videos nor the story was even reported in the newspapers in Malta. Goes to show the idiosyncrasies of communications in our country. Mind you, it appears that TikTok has a very small audience in Malta, reported by start.io to be some 15,600. It could be that the negligible impact was due to the fact that around 39% of TikTok users on the island are 18-24 years old while another 55% are aged 25-34 years ̶ both age groups who might be more interested in watching a video by that paragon of knowledge and culture Drinu, than Osama.
Yet, after a tweet from social media influencer Yashar Ali went viral on X, the number of views on the #lettertoamerica hashtag bounced to 13 million. That prompted a rush by TikTok to remove content about the manifesto. It was rather comic that TikTok even began suppressing videos that were criticising those who were endorsing bin Laden’s hateful writing!
The hysteria over the videos caused moral panic among lawmakers and other observers who accused TikTok that it was radicalising young people and amplifying the writing of a terrorist.
This incident speaks to how far there still is to go in boosting social media literacy and how susceptible everyone is to information disorder and suggestion. Even those who might consider themselves people trying to speak truth against falsehoods are not immune. Next year’s election cycle is sure to be gasoline on these longstanding faults.
The dog-eating days are over in South Korea, as the government said it will table legislation to end the practice. Dog farmers, traders, and restaurants will have three years to phase out their businesses. The country has some 4,000 farms which rear dogs for their meat. Some one million dogs are slaughtered every year.
South Koreans historically regard dogs as edible farm animals, not loving indoor companions. In the past, dogs were more plentiful than cattle, which were scarce and valued for farm labour such as pulling carts or ploughing fields. But Koreans, especially younger ones, are increasingly shunning the ancient custom.
I would never consider eating a dog. There’s no doubt that, if I were ever presented with dog meat, I would lovingly remember my childhood idol Lassie, the collie dog who featured in so many film adventures, or Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier who captivated audiences and nicely filled out a tuxedo (Uggie was awarded the Palm Dog Award for his performance at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011).
Main illustration: Shutterstock