Police arrest looters on July 13, 2021 in Vosloorus, Gauteng. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)
Fomenting violence online is illegal in South Africa – the use of social media during the latest violence has made digital literacy a priority.
First published by The ISS today
The role of social media in the ongoing looting and destruction of property in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal is difficult to determine in the heat of the moment. However, the instigators of what began this weekend as a politically motivated economic sabotage campaign have demonstrated how social media can be militarized, with devastating consequences.
At the time of writing, the official the death toll was 117. More than 1,400 have been arrested and 12 ringleaders are under investigation. The cost for the economy is expected to run into billions of rand, adding to the substantial burden already faced, especially by small and medium-sized businesses due to Covid-19.
The lack of accurate and timely public information from government sources has allowed a dangerous information gap to develop. The ability of traditional media to access sites of unrest has also been limited, with journalists sometimes at risk. Social media platforms fill this void, often with unverifiable, largely bogus content.
For a worried public desperate for information, the result can be an exaggerated reality shared through self-selected and trusted social media networks. How the reality is distorted is evident when comparing the officially confirmed incidents over the past few days in Gauteng with the social media reports (see diagram). The images presented by the two sources do not correspond.
Images and videos (many false or taken out of context) of burning infrastructure, demolished fences or other acts of civil disobedience generate their own momentum. They have undoubtedly provoked further violence and threats of racial and militia counterattacks.
In times of crisis, the need for information is normal and contact with social networks offers a certain comfort and connection to those affected. But the mix of fact, experience and fiction that emerges on these digital platforms can also cause anxiety, fear and panic buying among the public, and has stoked racial mistrust and hatred. The effect threatens South Africa’s already fragile social contract.
A social media consuming audience can fuel the fire by sharing inflammatory or just plain bogus content. These actions have consequences.
ANC ad that he will hold the daughter of former President Jacob Zuma Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla responsible for his tweets shows that the ruling party has awakened to the power of cyberspace. His posts included an embedded video and “let it burn” calls. Four other ANC members are reprimanded for their conduct online.
But the problem is not with personalities, politics or privilege. It is about the responsibility and consequences of online behavior. As more of us apply our right to free speech through social media, we need to be aware of our responsibilities and the real consequences of abusing it.
Arming social media is a crime. Malicious communications on social media platforms are offenses under South Africa’s newly enacted Cybercrime Law. Part II of the law makes it an offense to incite damage to property or threaten to damage property or persons.
In addition, if tweets, messages or conversations are strewn with false or deliberately manipulated images, the offenses can amount to counterfeiting and computer proliferation. The mere sharing of deliberately manipulated malicious content could make any of us unwitting assistants in the commission of a crime.
It is estimated that over 22 million people in South Africa use social media platforms, and that number is growing rapidly as more and more people acquire smartphones. In riots, protests or looting, the power of social media for better or for worse is brought to the fore.
For professional journalists, police, military and emergency responders, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp can provide real-time information about events on the ground. Using an open source survey technical to verify images and videos placed in the public domain on social media, police and prosecutors can identify offenders.
For security services, social media can show where and how they are deployed. It is a vehicle for conveying public safety announcements, such as urging people to avoid areas where violence has erupted. For journalists, social media offers unfiltered snapshots of the “front line” and immediacy hard to match in the age of 24-hour news.
Social media has also become a powerful tool for empowering public officials. From the perspective of protesters exercising their constitutional rights, online platforms provide a means of controlling those who police our streets. It allows people to capture and report real-time abuse or other instances of management overshoot, and a megaphone to demand the consequences of transgressions.
But social media during the civil unrest is a double-edged sword. Institute for Security Studies research showed how outrageous messages or tweets, images and videos are amplified through powerful algorithms and artificial intelligence, allowing messages to reach more people faster.
South Africa’s criminal intelligence must be equipped to identify patterns of social media unrest before they arise by tracking trends and potential influencers in times of tension. It will take resources and time.
Investigators and prosecutors need to be more proficient in the effective enforcement of the new Cybercrime and Malicious Communications Law in order to translate the laws into action. And public awareness campaigns aimed at responsible digital use could help mitigate the unintended consequences of our age of social media.
These are medium term solutions. As the looting and destruction of property continues, South African leaders should use their own social media to warn against abuse. The traditional media must remain vigilant, exercise the founding principles of journalism by checking the sources of information. As the public, we must take responsibility for what we publish or face the consequences in court.
Social media platforms are also under pressure to play a role in de-escalating tensions. In the past few days, EFF frontman Julius Malema has briefly experienced restricted access to his Twitter account after platform controllers claimed he broke their rules.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari recently suffered similar restrictions after tweets were deleted from an account in his name. His response was to to prohibit Twitter in Nigeria – a trend we can expect to see elsewhere in Africa as political leaders grapple with the technological realities that define our times.
Recent unrest and the apparent fomenting of online violence underscore the need for digital literacy in South Africa. Failure to investigate and prosecute the worst transgressors risks turning the platforms into an anarchic melee. This can push the government to completely restrict the use of social media or introduce punitive laws that restrict democratic space.
Karen Allen is an ISS Consultant.
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This notice was published: 2021-07-16 12:39:59