To regulate or not?
The advent of information and communication technologies and their implication on different spheres of human life have been topics of debate for decades. Such narratives have been echoing in academia, government, business, civic life, politics and media corridors worldwide. The common theme for such debates centres on finding answers to how the aforementioned bodies can keep up with the rapidly evolving new media and their inevitable influence on human communication.
It is true that the new media enable commercial institutions to become efficient with little cost implications on marketing communication, on the one hand. On the other hand, social media serves as a vehicle for citizen journalism and public participation.
But the abuse of such applications at the grass roots has become a new order of perpetuated societal and psychological abuse globally. This abuse is obliviously committed and exerted in jest, but with devastating social trauma.
South Africa has recently been hit by a huge wave of social media bullying – the act usually referred to as cyberbullying. In simple terms, cyberbullying is an act where a perpetrator uses digital media to harass, mock and victimise another person. Cyberbullying remains a global social issue with fatal implications on society, and especially on young people – the group academically referred to as millennials (people growing up during the internet era).
The perpetuated abuse of the autonomy of social media also gained attention from government through David Mahlobo’s State Security Agency, which is reportedly considering ways to regulate social media, as it is believed to be spreading fake news and scams. Mahlobo’s assertion received great criticism and was ridiculed as another step by government towards dictatorship
Jabulane R Mulambo
and an attempt to censor freedom of speech. The criticism might have been relevant in the proposed context, but with cyberbullying continuing on most social media platforms, the urgent call for social media regulation seems to be a necessity.
However, the anonymity of some social-media interfaces poses difficulties on the effective regulation and the criminalisation of cyberbullying. This is the harsh reality of social media that government has to face.
The permissibility of anonymity makes quenching the spreading of cyberbullying impossible.
Moreover, social media allows users to create unlimited accounts with no obligation to use their real identities. Some users might be tempted to clone another person’s account by using that person’s name and picture. This might result in fewer cybercrimes being accounted for and punished.
The recent #Sesuthu video (a pornographic video of a 14-yearold girl that went viral) demonstrated the pervasiveness of cyberbullying. Some participants might have ignorantly indulged in the exercise as a means of entertainment, but the impact on the victim can only be imagined as traumatic.
Therefore, regulating social media in South Africa will require a well-defined act of law that can give clarity to what are considered social media crimes. In the context of cyberbullying, some of these include: Who should be punished between the initiator of bully communication and the distributor of that communication? What kind of comment is regarded as cyberbullying and which is not? How do you distinguish between a joke and the perpetuation of cyberbullying?
Putting regulatory frameworks in place without educating society about the positive and potential use of social media for commercial and communication purposes will see further transgressions of social-media laws.
Similar to other crime and health awareness campaigns, South Africans need intervention to understand the concept of cyberbullying and its implications on individual, social and psychological wellbeing. Mulambo is a communications graduate from the University of
Limpopo and a founder of the JR Capacity Institute