Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Still unhelpful

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: NZ’s far-right religious “coalition” created to fight against marriage equality says their website was attacked, and they instantly accuse their opponents of having done it. Actually, this is a new story.

Bob McCoskrie, the guy behind the anti-gay marriage Protect [sic] Marriage NZ (and the related Family [sic] First NZ), claims that his website was attacked. According to a press release reported by last night by the website for TVNZ’s One News, McCoskrie says that about 9pm on Sunday night, four days after marriage equality was enacted by the New Zealand Parliament, his site was subjected to a Denial of Service attack.

Bob said his site was taken down by his webhost, adding, “This is no ordinary webhost—we are using a host in the US that specialises in hosting websites that are likely to be attacked.” Meaning… what, exactly? That this was a huge DoS attack, so big his webhost couldn’t cope? He doesn’t say.

But what he does say is extraordinarily unhelpful for someone who claims to value honest debate:
“It is disappointing that some opponents [of] our stance towards marriage are resorting to desperate—but failed—attempts to shut us down. We were also disappointed that our original web host company based in Christchurch was targeted with offensive emails simply because they were a business that we wanted to support and who were willing to host some of our websites.”
What would Bob’s opponents have to gain, now that the bill is law? He says, “We know that campaigns around the world seeking to protect [sic] marriage are benefitting from the resources on our site.” Maybe, but all of it is available from other sites, and most of it is just reposted from foreign, mostly American sites.

What else does Bob offer as a motive? He says his site as “has registered close to 25,000 pledges” from people who say they will vote against any MP who voted in favour of marriage equality. Um, so? At the moment, there are 3.3 MILLION eligible voters in New Zealand, of which 3.087 MILLION are enrolled. 25,000? That represents about .008% of enrolled voters—less than one percent. That’s hardly a serious threat. As time passes, people will move on—they always do—and by the time the election rolls around in a year and a half, even those who were opponents last week will have moved on, too (apart from Bob’s most ardent far right supporters, possibly).

Bob is merely projecting, making assumptions that, because Bob thinks his opponents feel threatened by him, they must be behind it. This is the second time that Bob has claimed that his site was attacked by his opponents, and neither time has Bob produced any actual proof.

Bob is defaming all of his political opponents by accusing “some” of being behind the alleged attack (and alleged is the appropriate word here since Bob is making accusations of criminal behaviour). This is extremely offensive.

As I said back in July:
No one should support censorship in a political debate, nor the suppression of arguments for or against a matter of public policy. Similarly, politically-motivated attacks on any website to suppress its speech and ideas, or to make it appear that is happening, are unconscionable and must be denounced. But in doing so, offering unsubstantiated smears against one’s opponents is no more acceptable, and completely unhelpful for robust fact-based debate.
That’s every bit as true now: Bob must not make unsubstantiated smears against his opponents.

But let’s play Bob’s game: The attackers were actually people from HIS side! They’d have a lot to gain: They’d get media attention for Bob, something he often struggles to get otherwise. As a bonus, it would look like reinforcement of their absurd claim of being “victims” of what his supporters like to call “homofascists” (though, as far as I can remember, Bob himself has never used that slur). This MUST be what really happened, right? I mean, it makes total sense to me, so it must be true! Yes, I'm being sarcastic.

My point is simple: Anyone can make a plausible claim about one’s political opponents when one doesn’t have to provide any proof. Allegations of criminal activity are serious, and should not be a soundbite for political propaganda.

Because, propaganda is what Bob’s press release actually was. He ends by declaring that he expects his website “to operate for a few years yet as the full impact of the law takes effect and as new attempts are made to redefine marriage even further to allow polygamy and group marriage.” Far right religious activists are obsessed with polygamy—despite the fact it’s illegal in all the countries that have enacted marriage equality for same-gender couples, and that the only countries that permit it are also the most stridently anti-gay.

Bob’s obsession with polygamy is related as more than the silly closing line of his propaganda: He never lets facts get in the way of a good yarn. If he wants to be taken seriously, he needs to start dealing in the fact-based world. If he has verifiable proof that his opponents were really involved, he must produce that proof. Otherwise, we must assume he’s lying for political gain.

Hacking and DoS attacks are very real problems, but let’s have a little perspective: Just today, the AP's Twitter feed was hacked, sending out a fake Tweet about the White House being bombed, which instantly sent the Dow Jones plummeting 140 points (the FBI is investigating). Also today, servers at Auckland University were hacked, affecting 4500 students, potentially including illegal access to their enrolment information and scholarship applications. This is what real cybercrime is and does. I’m sorry, but a NZ political site getting a DoS attack is an inconvenience for maybe a day, and unimportant compared to attacks like these.

So, yes, cybercrimes like hacking and DoS attacks are wrong, and the perpetrators should be prosecuted. But it’s every bit as wrong to make unsubstantiated smears against one’s political opponents just to try and score some propaganda points. Once again, Bob’s contribution to New Zealand’s political debate has been very unhelpful.

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