Cyberspace Peter Linford
ien the Commission for Racial Equality (www.cre.gov.uk)
. announced that it would be-publishing the names of those MPs -Wlio declined to sign its compact against facism it came as no surprise that such publication would take place online.
More surprising, given the vitriol, is 'that at the height of the row last week;pa the online list of non-signatories numbered only three. The acrimony ssurrounding so small a number serves ;%,,ripil to remind us of the power of words wfien compared with the power of
speech and the limitations of a medium such as the intemet when passions are high.
When visiting the CRE's websitc to check out just what this mw is all about, one could be forgiven for wondering why there is a row at all. The site exists within the .gov.uk domain, a region of the world wide web wherein lie official and semi-official wings of state as diverse as district councils, the monarchy and, of course, quangos such as the CRE. Presence here invests it with a significance to distinguish it from the dozens of campaign groups which Michael Ponillo records as routinely seeking endorsement from MPs. Even so the site is dull to a degree, indistinguishable from many sites for official bodies which simply tell you who they are, what they do and publish press releases. Of course the .gov.uk status of the site makes it difficult for it to be too radical.
It compares with the independent Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) website (www.carf. demon.co.uld) which is altogether more forthright. Both in turn compare with the curious lack of anything very much else on line on this subject. There are plenty of local campaign sites, sites concerned with particular forms of racism, notably in football, but otherwise cyberspace is rather quiet on this issue.
Whether this is a consequence of how emotive a subject this is. and how easily passion can lead to accusations of racism where none actually exists, is hard to say, but it is doubtful. Cyberspace is not traditionally shy of controversial topics. More probably, and depressingly for those who do campaign
on this topic, the medium itself postdates the generation for whom this is a live issue. Making them care is the challenge. The CRE is not helping itself with its current approach.
Witness the wording on the signatories page: "Election Compact 2001: signatories Conservative I Independent I Liberal Democrat I Plaid Cymru I SNP I Refused to sign"
Refused to sign. Three words. Another three words could be 'These are racist", Not what is written of course, but what non-signature has been taken to mean, and therein lies the danger of uncontexted words in a medium as prone to instant interpretation as this one.
In some sections of the intemet socalled "emoticons" — combinations of characters representing physical and facial expressions —are used to avert any obvious misinterpretation of written words. They can avoid the worst reaction to a text but cannot always place quite the correct context on what is written.
Not, of course, that this particular row has taken place entirely or even primarily online, but the CRE's decision to publish online wholly uninterpretecl a list of those who have declined to sign their declaration is asking for (rouble that no etnoticons could avert.
Had the CRE simply listed only those who signed and let the abstentions speak for themselves the exercise would have looked less like the McCarthyite witchhunt which many have perceived it to be.
If official bodies are going to use the internet they have to understand not only how it works, but also how the people who use it think.