Sunday, December 10, 2017

Social media bullies fuelled by hunger for gossip


By Mpoki Thomson

        The surge of social media is really on hot heels in Tanzania; soon it’ll be a fully fledged point of self-employment for the urbanites who like indulging in chit chats and devouring gossip, with no time to prove facts. For those with an abundance of appetite for hot topics that circulate the social circle, online arenas such as instagram, facebook and snapchat will be your faithful homes.

Times have truly changed, a few generations ago, computers were non-existent. But in the recent past there has been a reclusive club of a notorious few who have embraced social media, especially instagram in a different way. They use it as a personal portal for spewing vendetta and innuendos. These are what we call online ‘bullies’ on a rampage.

People love gossip, it’s an undeniable fact. Even though we know that we shouldn’t talk about people behind their backs, most people just can’t help themselves. Whether at work or with friends, the urge to engage in the shameful, but oh-so-enjoyable little betrayal cannot be tamed. That is why many of us follow these gossip pages on social media, so we can be ahead of all the scoops.

It is for this reason that these cyberbullies have little to no regard for what society might think of their unfiltered thoughts that find passage online. Since we entertain their acts, these bullies cause mayhem and leave a trail of victims along the way.

Boosting their egos, online bullies thrive at the mere thought of having a growing audience willing to read and listen to what they have to say.

According to Statcounter, a web traffic analysis tool, as of October 2017, 74.51% of social media visitors in Tanzania use Facebook, 10.99% pinterest, 7.63% twitter, 2.5% Youtube, 1.95% Instagram, and 0.81% Google+.

Globally, there are more than four billion mobile phone subscribers, two-thirds of whom are in developing countries, with the fastest growth on the African continent. Each year, there’s an increase in the number of mobile phone subscribers in Tanzania.

Growing influence

Such statistics paint a picture of the growing influence of social media in Tanzania. For the most part, social media is used for relaxation – an indulgence to pass time. It is for this reason that gossip pages or those that post sexually explicit content surge in popularity.

Social psychologist Laurent Bègue from France says that however much we may disapprove in theory our intrigue to gossip, it is very common behaviour. “About 60 per cent of conversations between adults are about someone who isn’t present, and most of these are passing judgment,” he says. Cyberbullies are fed by those who find intrigue in gossip. Some are even commissioned to insult someone for a fee. That’s why it is said that gossip builds bonds because shared dislikes create stronger bonds than shared positives.

The issue of online bullies is not alien to Tanzania, due to unfiltered, often vulgar slurs spewed online; Tanzania Communications Regulatory authority (TCRA) monitors online interaction pursuant to the Cyber Crime Law that’s an addition to the list of penal laws regulating freedom of expression. The enacted law acts as a point of reference for proper use of social media, and in the process puts to task those who contravene the law.

Such legal parameters are put in place to restore decorum and a sense of mutual respect. However, often times you come across a few pages online that persistently air insults unabated and without any form of restrain.

Local context

When it comes to the issue of freedom of speech, the legal system plays a pivotal role in trying to balance the interests between the human rights, on one side, and the need to regulate the society, on the other.

To put in proper perspective the umbrella under which social media bullies fall under, the US legal system is more definitive; it states “Cyberbullying could be limited to posting rumours or gossips about a person on the internet bringing about hatred in others’ minds; or it may go to the extent of personally identifying victims and publishing materials severely defaming and humiliating them.”

In the Tanzanian context, we have a plethora of people who qualify under the bracket of “cyberbully”.

There are notable names in the local social media circles when it comes to controversy. These tend to evoke emotions by posting controversial content that stir debates.

Some live in the Diaspora and have garnered fame back at home for their often heated content on their social media pages. They claim to be on a mission to bring salvation to the agonising Tanzanians.

From politics, entertainment to religious matters, you name it, they always have an opinion, be it positive or negative. Whatever tactic they are using must be working wonders because new followers are pouring in by the numbers on their social media pages.

Frank Chondo, a follower of one of the controversial figures on instagram in Tanzania (name withheld) says he likes visiting the page because that’s where he finds all the scoops, including content that trolls on other people.

“To me, she is not a bully, but a patriotic Tanzanian. She helps us in so many ways,” he says. Opinions are divided amongst those who devotedly follow her. But with each passing day, her slurs and vulgar language have become part and parcel of her instagram posts.

Wikipedia defines cyber bullying as the use of information technology to repeatedly harm or harass other people in a deliberate manner. With an insatiable appetite for gossip, lines of loyalty are blurred when facts that were laid bare before friends in secrecy become public news.

Personal attacks?

When you visit @TZShaderoom (Milly) on instagram, you’ll notice a common pattern of alliances on her comments section. These are groups of followers who use ‘tags’ to seek attention, they troll on different people thereby victimizing them.

In an interview with Milly, she is quick to negate the assertion that she’s a cyberbully. She says that she doesn’t use insults on any of her posts. Commenting about the various celebrity posts she uploads on her IG account, some of which come off as personal attacks fuelled by spite, she says; “I do not have anything against the celebrities I post. My daughter follows some of these celebrities and tries to follow their footsteps, so what I try to do is shed light on the negative and positive things that they do in society,” she says.

With each passing day Milly’s online presence receives an upsurge in traffic due to her content that tends to stir conversation.

Fuelled by attention

Cyberbullies are fuelled by the attention they receive from online followers. Neema Rashid* has been using instagram for four years now. She admits to following a few ‘gossip’ pages because she finds what they post to be interesting. She might have a point; anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that gossip is a vital evolutionary factor in the development of our brain.

Neema has never been a victim of social media bullying but has witnessed a few of her friends fall prey to hired instagram pages paid to insult them. She says that most of the disputes which lead to an all out war of words online stem from personal misunderstandings. “The third party (bully) is brought in to either settle the score, or mark the beginning of a new race,” she says.

Another social media user who is active both on Facebook and instagram and uses the online name ‘iam-brihannah’ on her instagram account says that cyberbullies are cowards who hide behind fake accounts and names to spread hate.

She works as a model/video vixen and has on occasion encountered a few spiteful comments on her instagram posts, which she is quick to delete and block the user.

Unlike the US, Tanzania doesn’t have many cases of suicide as a result of social media bullying. But with the rising trend in popularity of gossip pages that feed off rumours, it won’t be long before we hear of tragic news of a fatality that’s directly connected to cyberbullying.

* Not her real name.