Cyberbullying: A wave of social and psychological abuse in South Africa

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The advents of the Information and Communication Technologies and their implication on different spheres of human lives have been the topic of debate for decades. Such narratives have been echoing in academia, government, business, civic, politics and media corridors worldwide. The common theme for such debate centres around finding answers to how the aforementioned bodies can keep up with the rapidly evolving new media and its inevitable influence on human communication.

It is true that the new media enables commercial institutions to become efficient with little cost implications on marketing communication, on one hand. And on the other hand, social media serves as a vehicle for citizen journalism and public participation in South Africa. But the abuse of such applications at the grassroots has become a death poll and a new order of perpetuated societal and psychological abuse, globally. This abuse is obliviously committed and exerted as jests but with devastating social trauma.

South Africa has recently hit by a huge wave of social media bullying_ the act usually referred to as cyber bullying. In simple terms, cyberbullying is an act where a perpetrator uses digital media to harass, mock and victimise another person. Cyberbullying similar to sexting remains a global social issue with fatal implications on the society, especially teenagers and youth. This is the group, academically referred to as Millennials- the born during the internet era.

The perpetuated abuse of the autonomy of social media also gained attention from the South African government through the ministry of state security headed by Minister David Mahlobo. The state security ministry has been reportedly considering possible ways to regulate social media in South Africa, as it is believed to be spreading fake news and scams. Mahlobo’s assertion received a great criticism and ridiculed as another government’s step towards dictatorship and an attempt to censor freedom of speech.

The criticism might have been relevant in the proposed context, but with continues cyberbullying activities trending on most South African linked social media platforms; the agent call for social media regulation seems to be a necessity and a state of emergency.  However, the anonymity feature of social media interface poses difficulties on the effective regulation and the criminalisation of cyberbullying.

This is a harsh reality of social media that the South African government and the universe have to face. Taking into account the permissibility of anonymity and no cap of the creation of multiple accounts makes the quenching of the spreading of cyberbullying impossible, if not a long battle to concur.

Moreover, social media allows users to create unlimited accounts with no obligations to use genuine identity. Some users might be tempted to clone another person’s account by using real person’s name and picture. Thus, the complications of social media freedom of use might result in fewer cybercrimes accounted for and punished.

To make reference, the recent #Sesuthu video which roared through most South African social media platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter hashtags demonstrated the pervasiveness of cyberbullying act in South Africa. Though some participants might have ignorantly indulged in the excise as a means of entertainment and the spreading of social media grapevine, but the impact on the victim may only be imagined as traumatic.

Therefore, regulating social media in South Africa will require a well-defined Act of law which can give clarity to some of the controversies surrounding the phenomena of social media crimes. In the context of cyberbullying, some of the controversies include: Who should be punished between the initiator of a bully communication and the redistributor of a bully communicated communication? Or what kind of comment is regarded as cyberbullying statement and which is not? And how do you draw a line between an act of joke and a perpetuation of cyberbullying?

Therefore, putting regulatory frameworks without educating the society about the positive and potential use of social media for commercial and communication purposes will see further transgressions of the social media laws. Similar to other crime and health awareness campaigns, South Africans need education intervention to understand the concept of cyberbullying and its implications on individual social and psychological well-being.

Contributer: Jabulane R Mulambo

Jabulane R. Mulambo is a young professional, with expertise in Corporate Communication, Digital Communication and Knowledge Management.

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