Monday, October 18, 2021

BIUST lecturer says blocking Facebook would be ‘unwise’

Not having been published in the Government Gazette, the contents of the Cyber and Computer-related Crimes Bill that President Ian Khama spoke about in his state-of-the-nation address remain a mystery.

That notwithstanding, an academic at Botswana’s second university who knows a little too much about computers has his mind made up about what the bill shouldn’t attempt to do.

“Criminal acts are more personal than technological,” says Dr. Dimane Mpoeleng, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems at the Botswana International University of Science and Technology in Palapye. “It would be unwise for the Botswana government to, say, block Facebook.”

It is not too hard to fathom why he would give that particular social media platform as an example. Facebook has good and important uses but as an outlet for pathological behaviour, it is used by the idle-minded as a platform for tiresome, look-at-me vanity and an unregulated, round-the-clock insults stock exchange where, as often happens, some targets have no such odious commodity to trade back.  Mpoeleng’s analysis of the issue is that it is impossible to block rogue users from uploading criminal posts.

“Similarly, hackers also use the already existing “innocent” infrastructure to perform criminal acts. In most cases they use the dark web, which is impossible to detect. So it has more to do with an individual than the technology. Government cannot easily and effectively amend free Internet access to fight cybercrime,” he says.

There could be some irony though relating to the government’s attitude towards Facebook trollery. The 2017 “Freedom on the Net” report from Freedom House alleges that in Zambia, “Observers increasingly suspect that the government may be paying trolls to disseminate pro-government propaganda and sow misinformation about the opposition.” On the basis of posts by some users, it is highly likely that the Botswana government is using this form of trollery against the private press and opposition parties. If true, the latter assertion would raise the question of whether the government can realistically eliminate conduct that it also encourages.

While Mpoeleng draws a line between pathological behaviour expressed through technology, two people with very close association with Facebook conflate the two. Last month, a former Facebook executive called Chamath Palihapitiya, was quoted by a United States publication as saying that this social media platform is having a harmful effect on society.

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse. No cooperation. Misinformation. Mistruth,” Palihapitiya told an audience at the Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

Another, former Facebook president, Sean Parker, has revealed in an interview with Axios website that the thinking that went into developing Facebook was along the lines of, “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” He added: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

In May last year, Bill Maher, a really witty US comedian, excoriated IT giants Apple, Google and Facebook for operating no differently from drug dealers.

“The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children,” said Maher on his weekly “Real Time” programme. “Because, let’s face it, checking your ‘likes’ is the new smoking. Apple, Google, Facebook, they’re essentially drug dealers.”

As standard practice, Facebook withholds “likes” in order that users can periodically visit their walls to check them. The traffic generated as a result drives advertising rates up.

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