Monday, 7 December 2015

Racist comments online placed on billboards

Non-profit organisation highlights remarks to get people to think of the consequences
By Daryl Chin, Social Media Editor, The Sunday Times, 6 Dec 2015


What if the comments you make online wind up on a billboard near you? Would that force you to reconsider what you say?

This scenario played out for several racist Facebook users, thanks to a brilliant campaign by Criola, a non-profit organisation that works to defend the civil rights of black women in Brazil.

The campaign, called "Virtual Racism, Real Consequences", started from an incident where a popular black weather presenter - Ms Maria Julia Coutinho - became the target of crude racist remarks after correcting another anchor on a prime-time news programme earlier this year.

Here are some of the comments: "If you showered, you wouldn't be so filthy" and "Your hair looks like a pile of rusty screws".

There were far worse ones.

Once Criola staff identified the comments they wanted to highlight, they used geolocation tools to pinpoint the poster's address. They then secured billboard spaces nearby, and prominently showcased the comments in all their bigoted glory.

Names and profile pictures, however, were pixelated.

"We omitted the names and faces of the authors - we had no intention of exposing them," they said on their website. "We just wanted to raise awareness and start a discussion, in order to make people think about the consequences before posting these kinds of comments on the Internet."

A video released by the group showed positive reactions to the campaign.

"It's absurd. People who make comments like these should be arrested," said one passer-by.

"They hide behind a screen or someone else's picture and say whatever they think, because they know they won't be punished," said another.

The responses online were no different. "Racism is a crime," said one Facebook user.

The success of the campaign has prompted Criola to expand its efforts globally.

It will help do up the billboard artwork for those who have encountered racism online. But users need to verify the offender's address on their own and secure their own billboard space.

"The best friend of racism is silence," Criola said assertively on its site.

Criola's ingenious anti-racist crusade is the latest salvo in an ongoing war of hurtful words.

Callous remarks can be found across many websites and social media platforms, not least the Facebook and Twitter pages of The Straits Times.

What triggers such divisive exchanges could be anything from a disgruntled bus captain caught making a rude hand gesture, to the recent terror attacks on Paris and Beirut.

But tolerance and understanding are needed, now more so than ever before.

Consider this: If you can be considerate towards another person's feelings when speaking to that person face to face, shouldn't you exercise greater caution when your online comment goes out to so many more people?


It is getting tougher to tell what is real and what is not with images on cyberspace, especially with the increasing sophistication of editing tools.

But you can be sure that sharp-eyed netizens stand ready to point out if an image is doctored, particularly if it is from an official source.

After all, calling people out for a laugh is one of the greatest pastimes on the Internet.

In the latest example, the Indian government released a hard-to-believe photo showing Prime Minister Narendra Modi surveying severe flooding from a helicopter. The buildings the politician viewed through a round window were strangely vibrant and incongruous.

The photo was deleted after sparking a storm of criticism on social media.

Such incidents are nothing new, although they vary in scope.

North Korea, for instance, is one country that has routinely been in the news for image manipulation.

The state agency released photographs of a missile launched from an underwater submarine earlier this year. Leader Kim Jong Un stood proudly watching from a boat nearby.

The photos were met with a healthy dose of scepticism. In one image, for instance, the reflection in the water did not line up with the missile.

German aerospace experts said they doubted the launch took place.

Photos of Chinese officials on visits are another popular target for criticism. 

In one notable example, a vice-mayor from Ningguo was seen visiting a 103-year-old pensioner, who seemed ridiculously small in comparison.

Recently, netizens have also been poking fun at artist impressions released by the Land Transport Authority of a yet-to-be completed cycling path in Ang Mo Kio. "Why do these people have no shadows?" said popular humour site SGAG.

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