Faceblocked

By Fariha Sarawat.

Published in the Daily Star on 2 June 2010.

This piece shows the folly in the government’s recent ‘temporary’ ban on Facebook.

I’VE heard both sides of the Facebook story over the last few days. I’ve heard the story that banning is a breach of freedom of expression and is unreasonable censorship. I have also heard the flipside — how Facebook censors anti-Semitic content, but not anti-Islamic content, and hence the ban is a political protest against this selective censorship. Some have even romanticised the latter story as the Islamic subaltern taking a defiant political stance against the repressive West.

I’m sorry but I don’t understand how stopping the people of Bangladesh, regardless of their faith, from accessing a global social network that has made rooms for all kinds of social, political, and religious sentiments, including anti-Islamic ones, can be pitched as a just political protest.

I also don’t understand that the sentiments of those who support this kind of restriction. But then again, I don’t think I belong to the group that purports to speak for the subaltern.

Like most Facebook users of Bangladesh, I belong to the 18- 34 age bracket, which incidentally is also the largest segment of our populous.

A protest is a strong action that is in response to or is a reaction to some other action. Despite the “pro-” prefix, today, protests are hardly ever in favour of anything, and mostly strong reactions against something.

Protests almost always have popular support from a large number of people, are often reactions to disservice from a government or any other organisation or individual — it’s something people do when they feel they have been wronged or let down by those that they feel they have some kind of a relationship with.

And the protestors also have some kind of an ask, a demand, a change that they hope to see from the protest. Our rallies, marches, petitions, even hartals — annoying and disruptive as they are — are forms of protest.

The recent ban on Facebook, albeit temporary, is not an act of political protest.

A ban is not a protest. In this current day and age, it is best described as an act of denial. Banning doesn’t make anything go away. It just helps create a cocoon where what we don’t like exists for everyone else, just not us.

It gives us a false sense of security, as we pretend that since we can’t see it or feel it, it doesn’t exist; that somehow, excluding it from our world makes what we don’t like less potent; less of a threat.

But of course, in the real world — that is, the world outside of the ban we impose on ourselves and the other elements we control — it has no bearing on the actual threat that the subject of the ban poses.

Bans don’t change the status quo in favour of the banner — they just help us feel as though we have uprooted the problem, kind of like cutting of the head for the headache. Bans, in our case, make an issue we don’t like and would like to see go away get more attention than it would have otherwise.

Too bad banning YouTube did not really teach us that.

The Facebook ban is not a protest. There is no large body of people supporting it. The Bangladeshi zeitgeist is not the bearded young fellow on the street burning flags and effigies.

And neither is it the spiked-hair kid playing Farmville for hours on his computer. But even then, the latter will probably be more representative of the Bangladeshi youth of today in terms of their hopes and aspirations.

Those who have been responsible for banning Facebook don’t really have a relationship with the site. Otherwise they would definitely have known that reporting a Facebook page for offensive content is far more effective in getting rid of that page than nation-wide flag-burning photo-ops.

If they had any actual knowledge of the application, they would also know that barring the offensive cartoon page, most other Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) related pages on Facebook are fan-pages dedicated to following the teachings of the Prophet, and have hundreds of thousands of devout followers, including Bangladeshis.

More importantly, the ban on Facebook is not a social or political protest because it did not envision any kind of change in the public actions or perceptions regarding religion, religious sentiments and sacrilegious activities.

Merely pegging Facebook as western propaganda and hence having it banned because it offends certain “armed and dangerous” factions of the society, most of whom have no relationship with the tool, is not really a “change.” It’s simply us admitting to our inability to contain and control mindless violence.

Today Facebook, tomorrow Google — is banning websites the most sustainable way to keep the young and impressionable away from the evils of “sacrilegious content”?

Can we prevent the “armed and offended” from getting “provoked” by acts of intolerance by making sure they can’t access certain offensive sites?

Will a blanket ban prevent the “instigators,” the “blasphemous” from posting offensive content on the internet?

Will it really teach them a lesson?

If you think the right (or righteous and just) answer to any of the questions above is yes then you are even more delusional than the four-year old me who thought that hiding under my blanket would make the ghosts inside my head go away.

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