The Internet has become a way of life. Just like all living things it feeds on elements that are in constant motion and human emotion that is in perpetual wanting. This is evident on how fast any content shared on a certain medium can circulate and come back to its original sharer whether it is true or false is another issue.
Deutsche Welle recently organised a workshop called “Women At Web” to closely examine the levels of women engagement online and some of the pros and cons surrounding this said engagement. So many issues arose from this as many of the women who were present at this workshop were from different East African countries with equally different online demographics.
The different demographics determined so much when it came to how, why and what women shared online. Journalist Carol Ndozi from Tanzania whose work champions for the freedom of speech both online and offline expressed deep concerns about the shrinking space for expression. She elaborately described how silencing of hyper-visible women like her and many of us present was something that needed rapid legal action.
Josephine Karungi a television host from NTV Uganda shared similar sentiments. She questioned whether the intention to ensure women’s safety online was genuine because if it was why do complaints of online harassment fall on deaf ears. The amount of harassment and the demand that the victim be able to quantify or prove that they are being harassed is something that baffled all of us. Patricia Twansiima who is a feminist lawyer from Uganda also echoed the same thoughts highlighting how the more visible a woman was; the more prone she became to attack online.
The disgruntling thing about this was how proof was a requirement and Miss Twansiima asked, “How do you prove emotional abuse, isn’t the fact that someone is required to quantify how much they’re emotionally abused abuse itself?” Many women online who are pushing unpopular narratives, asking questions that disturb the perceived normal and growing their voices are a threat to many. These women are an annoyance because they refuse to go away and perform silence.
Women like me who get called all sorts of demeaning names because I refuse the heaviness that comes with the weight of unspoken words. Catherinerose Baretto who is a change catalyst in gender equality from Tanzania articulated the imbalance that exists amongst men and women when it comes to online engagement. She went further to expound on how this imbalance was simply a reflection of the offline existence. We are not equal offline why and how would we be equal online.
The intention of the workshop was to figure out how to mitigate the risks posed by online presence specifically for women in order to get more women online. My concerns were around securing the women who already exist online. Those women who are constantly walking into hateful spaces littered with nothing but vitrol and yet they keep going how do we secure them. Kenya for instance has a cyber crime act that’s supposed to secure online users from cyber bullying amongst other ills such as child pornography and the NCIC (National cohesion and integration commission) whose vision is for a peaceful, united, harmonious and integrated Kenyan society. These two alone if they worked the rate at which online toxicity would be reduced is unbelievable literally.
We must start questioning whom exactly commissions are supposed to serve if not the people. Kenyan online space is home of tribal and stereotypical labelling even from leaders who should know better. It’s the playing field of all sorts of bigotry with minimal ounce of sense. Much about what is wrong with online spaces just like offline spaces is the lack of consequence. No society ever walked the path of upward progress without the adherence to some kind of order and the consequence that comes with failure to abide.
There were interviews we conducted in Machakos county during the workshop and almost all the women we spoke to about their engagement online, shared similar sentiment of harassment they’ve witness other women face. One lady a clothes seller told us how she uses the Internet to popularise her business but is scared to engage actively on political issues. She’d love to engage but said political issues get heated up very fast and she doesn’t want to be attacked. This is a form of self-censorship where one doesn’t do something they’d want to do out of fear of a negative reaction. This happens to many of the women we spoke to.
There’s a fear of vilification, of being seen and being made an easy target amongst many women who wish to be active online. How therefore do we create safe spaces online without seemingly curtailing freedom of speech? What are the limits to freedom of speech? Must free speech mean you have the right to attack someone personally for it to be termed free? Shouldn’t we teach those in charge of online safety what abuse means and that it involves invisible scars? Should digital literacy become part of our various curriculums now that we have more and more younger Internet users? Amongst many of us who already use the Internet, do we understand what digital literacy means?
These were some of the many questions that we brainstormed over during the workshop and not all of them were answered. The most important thing was that digital literacy was something to be taught to each and every one of us. We need to be aware so we can create Internet users who are responsible for what they share and equally what they consume online. Many of us are oblivious of the impact our content has and those of us who do and still choose recklessness or bullying should be held culpable.
Carol Ndozi shared how we ought to elevate the online space to encompass a digital citizenship status with a set of rules that govern. It is the open-endedness of existing online without consequence that enables abuse. I believe speech is free but hateful, spiteful and dehumanizing speech towards a person’s being shouldn’t be. If we are to be digital humans then we must attain digital citizenship and that requires no blurred lines between right and wrong.