12 December, 2013

A short story of Polish Internet revolution

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Category: Activism, Opinion Country:
Aileen Donegan
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12 December 2013

By Anna Gotowska

To the utter surprise of many it seems that the tendency to treat political issues that don’t affect us directly with indifference can change, even in Poland where this tradition is well rooted. Could it be that the Internet is altering the patterns of our behaviour? Have the easily accessible tools of political influence provided by the Internet given us the power to shake the nihilism off and actually make a change?

During the infamous events of this year’s 11 November – Polish Independence Day – which, following the pattern of the previous ones – turning violent – many Poles seemed both resigned and sceptical. Most of us had actually predicted what the main  results of that day’s commemoration marches would be, as the violence has been escalating for a few years now. And so homophobic and highly nationalistic mottos and acts of vandalism performed during that day were no surprise to the Polish people.  Actually, the main media coverage on the eve of the events was focused on the attempts to estimate the value of anticipated damages done to the capital city. Common citizens settled with creating bets among friends, concerning  the predicted time of the first act of violence to happen on that day.

This attitude of, as I call it, ‘ironic indifference’ shown by Poles on many occasions as a ‘self preservation’ strategy during  the social or political misfortunes, may seem witty from afar and it sure proved to be quite useful during the harsh times suffered under almost 200 years of constantly changing foreign rule. But what undoubtedly was a great strategy while dealing with 19th century russian/austrian/prussian/ohwhocares empire’s oppression, seems not to be quite enough in the even harsher reality of modern liberal democracy. For one of the basic assumptions of such regimes is that people would actively participate in altering unsatisfactory aspects of reality, which is something that requires an approach actually opposite to this of ironic indifference. As the state is no longer under the dominant influence of  any foreign powers (over 20 years by now), no longer can we blame alien forces for the flaws of our nation. And although fulfilling civic society ideals is a far-reaching goal, and growing up to the democracy is a process that requires time, recent events occurring online might serve as an example of making few steps into the right direction.

UNEXPECTED SUPPORT

An unexpected, yet massive, support response to hate related incidents occurring in the streets was created in the online sphere, right after the first news of the incidents came in. As a direct reaction to homophobic vandalism of an artistic installation – the destruction of the ‘Rainbow’ – symbolising tolerance located in the centre of Warsaw, several initiatives were launched to fight hate speech online. One of them, a Facebook group  “Wielkie Sprzątanie” (“Great Cleanup”) started from a small, grass-rooted initiative and has attracted in just five days almost 10,000 supporters.

“Creating firstly a Facebook group, and later on a fan page, was a spontaneous idea. After the events of 11th we were all outraged by the incidents happening in the streets of Warsaw. At the same time Facebook was flooded with homophobic content. Later on, our supporters started to find and upload links to fan pages promoting content that was racist, antisemitic, anti muslim, anti polish, anti christian and so forth… We were horrified by the amount of hateful speech present online. As we started the laborious process of reporting hate speech to Facebook moderators, the number of our fans was growing at a crazy rate,” says one of the moderators of Wielkie Sprzątanie.

The core issue of such initiatives is of course for them to become visible and Wielkie Sprzątanie managed to gain such recognition. During the first week of its existence most of the main media titles mentioned the initiative on their websites, and the activity undertaken by online activists – as a response to offline violence – was a highly debated issue.

KEEPING THE MOMENTUM GOING

After the first peak of popularity comes everyday routine. Asked whether they see the chance for their initiative to become more than a one day “Facebook bubble” the moderators reply: “A month has passed since the action was initiated. Emotions surrounding the topic of 11th have inevitably cooled down, and the activity rate on the fanpage is obviously way lower than it used to be at the beginning. But this has also allowed us to rearrange  the framework of our actions. We have 12,500 fans, out of which five up to seven percent are very active, visiting our fanpage on an everyday basis and systematically looking  for and reporting pages with hateful content. This amount of active people is enough to allow the constant monitoring of Facebook pages. The other part of our Facebook fans is a group we can mobilise when specific issues will arise.”

Apart from the direct reactions to pages violating human rights, the aim behind Wielkie Sprzątanie is broader: to educate and raise awareness, sensitise people to the topic of hate speech. “During this month we taught hundreds of people how to react to the breaches of Facebook’s terms of use and how to report hateful content effectively. On the other hand we’ve shown the moderators of such pages that they are not beyond the law, they are obliged to act on hate speech, under the threat of being blocked if necessary. Without the cooperation of the moderators of reported pages, we wouldn’t be able to achieve such effects. It is a huge satisfaction when you see a post of the ‘Gdansk without muslims’ page moderator calling for “constructive criticism instead of calling each other names,” concludes the moderators of ‘Wielkie Sprzątanie’.

It is clear to me, that lately a shift has been made in terms of thinking about the online sphere in Poland. Apart from hate speech being a hot topic among politicians, it has also become an issue among common Internet users. We are likely to link verbal violence present online to the events happening offline. We have also become more aware of it, more willing to react. Not such a baby step in the society used to ironic indifference.


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