It’s the Message, Not the Medium

Jonathan Gornall

AFP Forum: Loic Venance

As the world struggles to tame the multiheaded Hydra that is social media, the case of a woman arrested in the UAE for allegedly insulting her ex-husband’s new wife on Facebook throws a revealing light on the confusion hampering efforts to control the beast.

Laleh Shahravesh, a 55-year-old Briton, was arrested in Dubai this month after flying in for her ex-husband’s funeral. Ms Shahravesh and her husband had lived in Dubai for 18 years and, after they separated, she returned to the UK. He remarried and in 2016 Ms Shahravesh allegedly posted an insulting remark about her ex’s new wife.

There are two issues here, which emerge whenever a British citizen breaks the UAE’s laws. UK-based organizations such as Detained in Dubai attack the supposed “severity” and “unpredictability” of the country’s laws and criticise the UK government for failing to warn its citizens of the perils they face.

This is plainly nonsense.

The UAE’s legal system is the UAE’s own business and to compare it unfavorably with that of Britain, or any other country, is an exercise in post-colonial arrogance. Indeed, arriving in any country expecting it to operate to the same code of social practice that you bring with you is a form of blatant cultural imperialism.

Furthermore, ignorance of the law is no defense in any legal system – including Britain’s. It behoves any visitor to another country to acquaint themselves with its laws and to this end the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office publishes extensive advice online.

In the UAE, it cautions, “laws and customs are very different to those in the UK.” Visitors “should respect local traditions, customs, laws and religions” and “there may be serious penalties for doing something that might not be illegal in the UK.”

It adds that “swearing and rude gestures (including online) are considered obscene acts,” while “posting material … critical of … individuals … may be considered a crime.” And therein lies the key to the policing of the online world.

The technology isn’t the problem. The problem, as it always has been and always will be, is people – or, rather, human nature. There will always be some people who are prepared to defy social norms.

In the UAE, as in other civilized countries, it is unacceptable to insult or abuse another person, whether to their face or via a medium such as the internet, and the Shahravesh case is not the first time a foreigner has fallen foul of UAE laws governing personal behavior. Last year a 44-year-old American was arrested for using an insulting word in an Instagram post about his estranged wife, and a 29-year-old Briton was arrested after sending a WhatsApp message accusing a car dealer of ripping him off.

The medium is not to blame in such cases, or whenever someone posts racist or obscene material or libels or insults another user. It makes no more sense to circumscribe Twitter or Facebook in order to prevent their misuse by errant individuals than to attack the entire book publishing industry to prevent dissemination of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Similarly, placing the onus on any medium to control its misuse is to sidestep the real issue. No one would suggest shutting down a national postal service because it was used to send threatening letters. Instead, the sender of those letters would be arrested and charged accordingly.

In Saudi Arabia, where the use of social media is exploding, the government has made it clear that the rules that govern behavior in the “real” world also apply in the digital domain. In a tweet last September, the public prosecutor’s office stated that “producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disturbs public order, religious values and public morals through social media” would be considered a crime.

Many societies are agonising unnecessarily over how to control social media. They already have laws forbidding slander, libel, racial abuse, threatening behavior and so on, and they should be applied – as they have been in the UAE and elsewhere – regardless of the medium. Furthermore, in their terms and conditions of use all social media companies already state clearly what they consider to be unacceptable behavior.

“We believe in freedom of expression and open dialogue,” says Twitter, “but … we prohibit behavior that crosses the line into abuse.” Similarly, Facebook makes it clear that users may not do or share anything that “infringes or breaches someone else’s rights,” and that “everyone on Facebook plays a part in keeping the platform safe and respectful.” Pleading “freedom of speech” is a red herring that misses the basic point – that socially unacceptable abuse is socially unacceptable abuse, no matter how one chooses to broadcast it.

Now, more than ever, the world is in need of civil public discourse. Is zero tolerance towards those who contaminate the public space, digital or otherwise, such a bad thing? People have unrealistically high expectations of social media, based upon its presumed ability to link people, regardless of cultural, political or physical borders. The reality is that, emboldened by anonymity or digital distance, many people are even more grumpy, racist and abusive online than they would ever dare to be in person.

Detained in Dubai has criticized what it calls the UAE’s “harsh and ill-defined cybercrime laws,” but nevertheless offers this valuable tip to visitors: “In the UAE, before you say anything online, you should consider whether or not you would be comfortable saying it in front of the police.”

In a world struggling to come to terms with social media, it’s sound advice that we would all do well to follow.