Commentary

Stamping out digital wildfires

Published: January 25, 4:00 AM
Updated: January 26, 12:11 AM
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One of the most vivid examples of a digital wildfire was the attack on centuries-old Buddhist temples in the southern part of my native Bangladesh in September last year. This was the first such instance of large-scale religious vandalism in the 40-year history of a Muslim-majority but secular Bangladesh.

Apparently, an offensive image tagged to the Facebook profile of a local Buddhist boy was the spark. It has also emerged that the tagging was a deliberate act of sabotage.

From the perspective of risk management, this incident highlights the potentially incendiary nature of unfiltered, unprocessed and rapidly-socialised Internet content.

Other examples abound in various parts of the world with costly consequences for lives, reputation and property. While in the majority of cases, the Internet can be self-correcting, the combination of democratised uploads, multiplicative networks and the emphasis on brevity over analysis has fattened the risk outcomes.

This is especially so when the act of misinformation is deliberate.

However, as we grapple with the challenge of containing this risk, the second part of the story from Bangladesh may be instructive.

The initial outburst of violence was not only contained largely to one locality, it was roundly condemned by people expressing themselves in various media (some of which went viral). Far from fanning the flames, rival political parties jostled to establish themselves as “defenders of minorities”.

As soon as the information was corrected, the wildfire was stamped out, demonstrating that the enlightening effect of the Internet can be more powerful than the initial force of destruction.

OFFLINE FIREFIGHTERS

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