Whether we would like to admit it or not, we are an age that relies heavily on social media from our sources of information, jokes and entertainment and overall communication. Some speak more to friends online than they do face to face. To the point that if a relationship is not online, several youth consider it baseless and not factual.
I recently attended a women’s conference in Lusaka organized by Africa Governance Architecture, which is a department of political affairs in the African Union Commission – to discuss ways to strengthen women participation in political spaces. There were women from all over the continent; some were political aspirants, members of parliament, activists, community mobilizers and government agents.
It was revealing to hear some stories from political aspirants from around Africa share about harassment online. I could fully relate because a few days earlier, I was misquoted on twitter by a national media house. The insults that were hurled at me from grown men was deeply distasteful considering that we are not children on a playground but adults.
Worse still was the number of trolls that engaged on my timeline almost immediately after. Calling me all sorts of names, with pent up anger, reacting as though I had killed one of their relatives having no ardent desire to first check the basis of the quote and whether it was factual. I am not the kind to respond with retaliation, I simply said it was taken out of context and asked for it to be deleted by the media house and it was. But by then damage was already done.
The ugly face of social media revealed itself. Individuals hiding behind a keyboard insult people that they do not even know or understand the situation. All for what? We all have the right to express ourselves, but if you do not agree with the opinion, why must we throw insults at one another. So much hate is being spewed on our social media, especially in this political period that is tense and this is where several young people use most of their time.
When did we normalize this sort of engagement? Even more concerning is that my story is not unique. These days due to social media, we are able to watch Presidents congratulate each other on their electoral wins through twitter handles. Or observantly watch President Trump insult his next victim in humor, or wait for announcements from the Chair of IEBC from his handle social media has made such an influence to our way of thinking and interaction – even more than we think.
Recently, we saw an American citizen working in Zimbabwe because he insulted President Mugabe on twitter. We have also witnessed media houses grapple with factual information that is seen online. Additionally, we must recognize the rise of fake news spreading. From the common image of a man with dreadlocked hair wearing military uniform that only experts can tell you was photo-shopped, circulating documents about individuals personal affairs, and one can tell that the culprits did their research when it came to searching for fake biographies.
The actual people exist, but the institutional arm being used has been equivocated. We have seen real media houses pick up stories and have to apologize for sharing fake information. However we must admit that it has become so difficult to tell. Large media stations have played the fool before, for instance being tricked by fraudster “Eduardo Martins” who impersonated to world established media outlets that he is a war photo journalist by inverting real images that belonged to other individuals and in some cases photo shopping his image into them.
In the confusing forest of fake news and insults, what we need more and more are people who think, those who verify their information. We need that more than ever in this politically tense environment. Check the facts before sharing the content. A sad reality is that we tend to share volatile and controversial information with speed. Additionally, it is because I am a young woman engaged in politics – the expectations are even higher.
And what is even more worrying is the way “social media influencers” use that platform negatively. Starting engagement with insults, the hurled insults that they encourage make you wonder whether it is difficult or a rule on cyber space not to speak with sense and civility. Adults speaking as though they just crossed into puberty and hiding behind the disguise of a keyboard: demonstrating all this bravado that if you were to meet in person, one would wonder where they gather this false courage.
It was sad for women in this conference to share with me that many of them have up to 10 pseudo accounts. To speak back to those who insult them on social media. For a man, he can simply respond how he pleases. But for a woman, she will be judged harshly. So create a fake account, give it a male persona and use it to speak your inner most anger and attack. Because retaliating publicly is not lady-like. But seeing men throw fists at one another, some find it comical, others will find out the reason why – perhaps it is justifiable.
As soon as a woman who holds a leadership position responds with vulgar retaliatory language, it will be the end of her career. The usage of insults to put a point across should not be a requirement for speech online.
By Nerima Wako