(Image Credit: pixabay.com; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
The speed at which news gets reported and consumed creates a high probability of missing key details, causing major misunderstanding of events. All our talk about ‘misinformation’ misses this key aspect.
ON March 19th, I came across a disturbing story by City News of Toronto about an attack on a mosque that had just taken place in Mississauga. I secretly hoped that this wasn’t an act by some crank against Muslims for the mere fact that they are Muslims. It was a matter of relief that the attacker hadn’t been able to inflict much physical damage. The story did not contain the name of the attacker, although it did say that he had been apprehended. I shared the story on a WhatsApp group without comment; the group is composed of residents of Brampton and Mississauga, and my only purpose was to let them know of an act of violence that had taken place in our vicinity.
Some hours later, I came across the same link. Initially, I thought its was from another media outlet – which points to one of the perils of consuming news too fast. This time around, the name of the apprehended person had been mentioned as Mohammed Moez Omar. I consider it likely that it was mentioned in the report when I saw it the first time around, but that I had missed noticing it (another pitfall of the speed at which we read things online).
The next day, on March 20th, a friend shared with me a tweet by Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, which stated the following:
“1/ In response to the evil, violent act of Islamophobic hate, the Dar Al-Tawheed Islamic Centre community acted courageously to keep folks safe. We all stand with them.
But it should never have come to this. Everyone deserves to be safe in their community and place of worship. #ONpoli” (Emphasis added).”
(As an aside, I wonder if Ms. Horwath tweeted / said anything similar about attacks on places of worship when many churches were set ablaze last year.)
Even though we fully expect politicians to jump to conclusions on certain issues before full facts are available, it is nevertheless concerning that a full day later, Ms. Horwath had not seen it fit to delete the tweet and issue another in lieu of it without referencing Islamophobia. As of the time of writing this, on March 22 at 11:25 AM, she still hasn’t corrected her error. And lest there be any doubt, she continued with this in her next tweet (which is also still up), as follows:
“This is why we need urgent government action to tackle Islamophobia and all violent hate.
This is why we must pass #OurLondonFamilyAct now to protect people and stop this horrific pattern of violent hate before anyone else is threatened or we lose another life. (Emphases added).”
Over at the federal level, Minister Marco Mendicino tweeted the following at 3:39 PM on March 19 (when the identity of the apprehended man had been revealed already), and this tweet is also still up at the time of writing this article 3 days later:
“I am shocked and appalled to hear of an attack at the Dar Al-Twaheed Islamic Centre in Mississauga, which Peel Police are investigating as a hate crime. My thoughts are with the community. Now more than ever, we must stand with all Muslim Canadians against Islamophobia. (Emphasis added)”
The first camera that I ever operated belonged to my father (naturally). It used 120 mm film. I have forgotten its brand name (it wasn’t one of the famous names of the time), but the other marking on its body said, “Made in the US sector of Germany”. This puts its date of manufacture within the relatively narrow window of time between the WW2 defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 and the partitioning of the country into its eastern and western halves in 1949. This was, of course, before automation kicked in, so a lot of manual controls had to be mastered to get a good photograph.
For capturing the image of an object moving at high speed, the shutter speed had to be set to a higher level. But this meant that less light would enter the camera in the shorter duration. This was to be compensated for by increasing the size of the aperture through which light enters the camera. With experience or via instruction, one could get a hang of figuring out the exact combination of shutter speed and the aperture width. If the aperture width was too small for the shutter speed, one would get an underexposed film and thus an unclear photo. Or if the shutter speed wasn’t high enough for the given aperture, too much light would enter the camera and overexpose the film, resulting in a ‘photo’ that had nothing other than the colour white all across it.
To complicate matters further, the general luminosity around us depends on the time of day and cloud cover etc. This also went into the calculation. And finally, even the focusing of the lens had to be done manually (there was a tiny wheel to rotate for this purpose); a visual aid showed the photographer whether the object was correctly in focus or not. In a nutshell, taking a good photograph took time while one fiddled with all these manual controls – and the results still weren’t guaranteed for the people who hadn’t become adept at the process. Those who had mastered the art held their heads high and commanded the respect of others.
I saw the advent of automation in photography first in the form of Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera. There was no need to set the focus of the lens – the camera did it automatically. Gradually, more and more functions have been automated. While these enable more people to take good photographs, it has also eliminated (or greatly reduced the size of) the higher caste of expert photographers. And although we may not lament the loss of that higher caste, we have also lost, collectively, the intuitive knowledge that one acquired in the process of becoming a member of that caste.
How can we apply that intuitive knowledge in the context of the subject matter at hand? The pace at which news and other content comes at us is not in our control, which means that we can’t set the shutter speed – which is getting set ever higher for us by external factors. In order to obtain a clear image, then, we must widen the aperture suitably, depending on the general ‘luminosity’ around us. Unfortunately, we have also lost (perhaps in a gradual manner – although you may have a different opinion on this) the ability to widen the metaphorical aperture. This has happened largely as a result of societal pressure. If a person says, “Hang on, I need to wait for all the details to emerge before I can form an opinion on this”, that person would instantly be judged as sympathetic to the ‘perpetrator’ or unsympathetic to the ‘victims’ at best, and a bigot / racist / xenophobe / transphobe / white supremacist etc. at worst (I am putting the words ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’ in quotes here because the premise is that sufficient details haven’t emerged yet).
This is bad enough, but there is a flip side to this that is equally concerning: What if someone forms / expresses an opinion based on insufficient ‘light’, which later proves to be incorrect in a way that may have harmed another person? The premature conclusions expressed by Ms. Horwath and Mr. Mendicino fall in this category – although the identity of the persons who were harmed by them remains amorphous. In the same vein, a lot of people (including, of course, politicians – please see the video at this Twitter link) had jumped in a queue to castigate the participants of the truckers’ protest in Ottawa when it was reported that someone had attempted to set an apartment building on fire. As Ottawa Police reported on March 21 (i.e., about 7 weeks after the allegations and the consequent brouhaha), the person charged with the attempted arson had no connection with the truckers’ convoy. Luckily, no untoward development resulted from the false-accusation-accepted-as-fact this time – but someone could really get hurt (physically or otherwise) before the accusation gets proved as false the next time around. And, as I will show in the next segment, this is still not the end of the matter.
As we know, Minister Ahmed Hussen has already stated publicly that the federal government would be reintroducing the piece of legislation that used to be known as Bill C-36 in the previous parliament (the so-called ‘anti-hate Bill’). It couldn’t become law because the parliament was dissolved prematurely. This time around, it will be afforded greater opportunity of passing in view of the ‘deal’ that the Liberals and the NDP announced yesterday, which envisages this minority government lasting its full term until 2025. I have explored the many shortcomings of that Bill in my earlier article ‘Bill C-36 Sets Us On a Journey To Baghdad Of 2007’. In that article, I focused on the phenomenon of ‘proactive compliance’ that people adopt as a strategy when the rules are both unclear and changeable without notice, and when ‘due process’ doesn’t exist as it should.
The aspect of ‘high shutter-speed’ adds to that discussion. Additionally, steps are already afoot at the government level to enlist the population at large in ‘reporting’ cases of ‘misinformation / disinformation online’. As this statement on the government of Canada website says in a news release dated March 16, 2022:
“… the Honourable Pablo Rodriguez, Minister of Canadian Heritage, announced the launch of a special, targeted call for proposals totalling $2.5 million to fund initiatives that help people identify misinformation and disinformation online.”
It is reasonable to suppose that much of this funding will go to an assortment of ethnic / religious / ideological / other minority groups that are at greater risk of being targeted with misinformation / disinformation. If one agrees with the starting point, then one is led to believe that they are naturally better suited – and equipped with the requisite sensitivity – to identify such instances. But in the real world (which, as we know, can be messy), things can backfire – as the cases of Ms. Horwath and Minister Mendicino demonstrate. Let’s take an example from the opposite direction to prove the point:
Suppose an instance of violence is reported with different circumstances but equal haziness of details, and that report causes someone to conclude that it is a case of Islamic terrorism, which they state publicly. If that conclusion proves to be completely untrue later, do we treat that person as liable to whatever actions / penalties that may be stipulated in law? And if the answer is yes, why wouldn’t we do the same when the situation is reversed? In other words, what I am saying is that if the successor piece of legislation to Bill C-36 were to become the law of the land, both Ms. Horwath and Minister Mendicino would be liable to prosecution for hate-speech against all non-Muslims, as well as misinformation / disinformation.
Of course, the unspoken opinion of many will be that politicians aren’t held to account for their words and actions in quite the same way as us hoi-polloi are – but the reality of the principle would be unaltered by that inconvenient reality of life.
The proper remedy for our predicament is that we re-introduce the concept of matching the width of the aperture to the shutter speed and the level of luminosity. But that is not going stop politicians from continuing to behave in the way they have been. Therefore, we need to enshrine in law a system akin to the demerit points system that applies to our ability to operate a vehicle legally. If politicians seek to collect brownie points (pun intended) by spouting off prematurely, then in the event of their hasty conclusion being proved to be wrong, they need to be given demerit points. If they accumulate a certain number of demerit points, then they can’t be appointed to ministerial or other positions. At a higher level of accumulation of points, they lose their ability to run for re-election. And beyond a certain threshold, they should be forced to vacate their seat forthwith.
The main impediment to arriving at such a system isn’t new, and is perfectly encapsulated in the age-old question: Who will bell the cat? Whether we are able to answer this question depends on whether we, as voters, see ourselves as the principals and the politicians as our representatives, or whether the politicians are right in their unstated opinion (but amply demonstrated in their behaviour) that they are above us, and therefore above the law.