BEING something of a technophobe, I was for many years sceptical toward the internet. Not any more, as this blog (ugly word, that, as my wife says) attests. There’s no denying that the worldwide web has empowered millions of people by allowing them to receive and share information and opinion that they might not otherwise have had access to. In the process, it has introduced a liberating new dynamic to political debate.
But as with many advances, the net is a double-edged sword. It provides a platform for anonymous ranters and semi-literate ideologues of all political colours whose infantile and toxic rhetoric makes the much-derided callers of talkbackland seem positively profound.
It’s also a wonderful toy for mischief-makers. As evidence of this, I cite something that directly affected me.
Until recently, anyone clicking on the Google search button to find information about Karl du Fresne (yes, I admit doing this from time to time) would have pulled up a reference to a 1999 decision by the Press Council relating to a complaint about a column I wrote on Serbian ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.
What came up on screen were the following words: “By most normal criteria – objectivity, fairness, balance, accuracy – Karl du Fresne’s piece falls abysmally below acceptable standards ...”
Anyone seeing this, and noting that the source was a Press Council decision, would reasonably assume that these were the council’s own words - and very damning words at that. In fact they were the words of the complainant. The council did not uphold the complaint against me. But to discover this, you had to read the full decision, which I imagine few people would have taken the trouble to do.
Someone else – not the Press Council – was responsible for highlighting this misleading excerpt. Significantly, it appeared on the net at about the same time that I attracted the malevolent attention of a stridently pro-Serbian website which had stumbled across my 1999 column and the subsequent complaint against me. I suspect the two developments are not unrelated.
The attacks on me by the pro-Serbian website didn't concern me, since the perpetrator was clearly deranged. You can hardly take seriously someone who defends the vile extremes of Serbian nationalism. But the misuse of the Press Council decision, which was clearly aimed at damaging my reputation, suggested to me that someone was manipulating the net for their own purpose.
The reference always came up within the first 10 search results. Now I was under the impression that the order in which search results come up on screen is determined by the number of hits on each one (someone more net-savvy might be able to confirm or contradict this). But I can scarcely believe that there was such interest in a 1999 Press Council decision about an obscure newspaper column on Serbian atrocities that it showed up, month after month, as one of the most frequently read items about me on the net.
I finally tired of seeing the decision misrepresented in this way and when I drew it to the council’s attention, it took prompt action – for which I am grateful – to have the reference removed. Council secretary Mary Major told me their webmaster was unable to explain why the entry showed up the way it did. While it was acknowledged as odd, the webmaster thought it unlikely that someone had deliberately engineered it that way.
Hmmm. Call me paranoid if you like, but I still nurse the suspicion that this was a piece of malicious internet mischief.