Shortly after writing a recent post about Fabrice Muamba’s cardiac arrest, I came across the news story that a student in the UK had been slapped with a jail sentence for posting racist comments about the footballer on Twitter. My initial reaction was surprise, as I didn’t realise UK lawyers could prosecute people posting offensive and provocative comments online, but this quickly turned to annoyance that nothing was being done here.
Upon further research, I discovered “HR 1966”, the Megan Meier Cyber bullying Prevention Act named after the high-profile “MySpace suicide” victim, Megan Meier. This piece of US legislature is meant to prevent people from using the Internet to “coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person.”
You see, while other countries are slowly taking down the trolls, the problem is just getting worse here.
In case you aren’t up to speed, internet trolling is a recent phenomenon in which online forums, social media accounts, comment forms and more are bombarded with insults, provocations and threats – the anonymous perpetrators behind them known as ‘trolls’. While it is a common practice on websites around the world, it seems that online trolling in Africa, in particular, is starting to spiral out of control.
If you don’t believe me, go take a look at the comment sections of online blogs you read every day: Linda Ikeji’s blog or Sahara Reporters for example, and you will find everything from racial slurs to mysogynism to death threats. Or, to see all of those awful things at once, cast your eye over the comments on this admirably brave Chude Jideonwo’s piece.
But why is cyber trolling happening so much on the continent, and what can we do to put a stop to it?
A simple explanation for why trolls do what they do is given by Professor Mark Griffiths at England’s Nottingham Trent University. “Online people feel anonymous and disinhibited,” he says. “They lower their emotional guard and in the heat of the moment may troll either reactively or proactively.”He also adds that it is most commonly carried out by young adult males for amusement, boredom and revenge.
While many of these factors ring true everywhere, there are some distinctly African issues that add to the unsavoury mix. For one, the continent’s tribal history and unlimited clans, often expressed in ethnic hatred, is something people can easily tap into. Remember Rwanda 1994 and the role the media played? Radio Rwanda became the voice of the devil, diffusing hate propaganda and calling on one tribe to “eliminate those cockroaches…” of another.
Gender and income divides, lack of exposure are also still acute in many places, fueling anger that can often only be expressed in an anonymous environment. And there is still a lot of ignorance in these parts, which as we all know is exactly the kind of thing that can fuel prejudice.
So what to do? We can’t just sit back and wait for legislation to be passed in Nigeria. We need to act quickly – before the trolls take their online behaviour and apply it in the real world. The tide will start turning when websites start policing such comments. The fact is, a simple fair warning will go a long way. It would seem that many websites are part of the problem, leaving the most horrific comments online because the more sensational it reads the more traffic it generates, and the more heated arguments there are, the longer users will stay on the site. Seth Godin is right, everyone’s not entitled to their opinion if…
Some moderation needs to be put in place, starting right here.
I am hopeful that legislation will be brought in to help deter cyber bullying – maybe Paradigm Initiative Nigeria will champion this? Until then, writers will just have to learn to take the praise and the constructive criticism from genuine readers while discarding baseless vitriol from bored cowards. That, at least, is what I’m planning to do.
In that spirit, over to you. And to you too.