In a 2011 report, the United Nations (UN) counted internet access as a basic human right. However Vinton G. Cerf in the New York Times earlier this year noted that arguments to the effect that internet access is a basic human right “however well meaning, misses a larger point: technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself.” Cerf goes on to contend “There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things.”
It is against this backdrop that I want to look at an increasing phenomenon and trend of the cyber bullying of women on the internet both in South Africa and internationally, especially in social media in particular by using two incidences from two high profile personalities on Twitter as a case study.
In November 2011 popular South African actress Bonnie Henna was subject to a very public and humiliating twitter attack from an account under the name of @beyonka_fierce. This male correspondent, hurled insult after insult at Henna; some of which included “@bonniehenna my pussy tighter than yours though #Chappies Did You Know”, threatening that “I can take your man. You will come for your kids’ visitation at my place bitch @bonniehenna”, and going as far as uploading a picture of the actress and tagging her “@bonniehenna looking like a damn cancer patient” / “@Bonniehenna you look like a gremlin with the face of a horse”.
In similar fashion, but only a few weeks back popular writer dream hampton also fell victim to primarily male twitter users who attacked and mocked her daughter after someone leaked pictures of her daughter on her protected personal facebook profile. This person then uploaded them on Tumblr and shared them widely on Twitter (with mainly negative comments mocking dream’s teenage daughter) consequently causing hampton to deactivate both her accounts on Twitter and Tumblr.
While both Henna and hampton are well known personalities, I use them to open window to the cases of less well known women who do not necessarily have the following or platforms that both these personalities command. Men, too undoubtedly also suffer from this trend of cyber bullying, but I have noted most in my circle of following that men are not as affected as are women when it comes to cyber bullying.
According to a Google South Africa commissioned study, although South Africa has a population of around 50 million people, it only had about 8.5 million active internet users at the end of 2011. This usage is mainly attributed to the users of smartphones which thus brings internet usage in South Africa to around 17 percent of the population. A May 2011 Effective Measure statistics of internet usage in South Africa broke down the usage of the internet by gender in South Africa and found males constitute 68.89% of internet usage, whereas females only constituted 31.11%.
Vinton Cerf notes that in our discussions of whether the internet is basic human right or a civic right we tend to “overlook a more fundamental issue: the responsibility of technology creators themselves to support human and civil rights.”
It is on this that I want to turn my attention now. It is no secret that most of the main popular social media sites top executives are primarily male. The ‘Face it’ campaign for instance recently highlighted before Facebook’s $ 5 billion initial offering, that Facebook’s corporate board was 100 percent composed of white male members. At the time of writing I could not find authoritative data on the gender constitution of Twitter’s board members, but a quick scan through the founding owners reveals a largely male set up.
I bring this to the fore because as ‘Face it’ correctly note, wider gender representation on the top management of these sites would ensure greater diversity and understandings of the different issues faced by different genders using these networks. It is no coincidence that these platforms have yet to prioritize anti-female bashing or any other form of public bullying unless there is a huge public outcry. I therefore want to call for greater protection of users on public social media platforms and on the internet.
With Facebook nearing a billion users, and Twitter half a billion, better measures of protection of users, are critical if they want to sustain growth while ensuring a space for everyone to participate in the global sharing of knowledge. Cyber-security accompanied by a strong anti-bullying sentiment should be prioritized by these sites which have the technology, financial resource base and expertise to design preemptive measures.
The internet has indeed revolutionized our lives and allows us to exercise so many of our rights (such as the right to freedom of speech, right to information, and privacy, and even privacy). However, clearly cyber-bullies threaten the enjoyment of the benefits of the internet for many, especially women who are clearly seen as easy targets. While I do agree internet is not a basic right as we can live, and have lived without it, I think bullying people off the internet is a human rights violation as people are deprived of technological means with which to exercise some of their basic rights for instance to connect with other people freely without fear of harm, to share thoughts freely, and to access information and opportunities.
The interesting thing about both bullies leading the bully pack of these accomplished females I mentioned is that both of them are male, and (2) that both their accounts are still active despite a wide effort to have them removed for breach of use (i.e. abuse of other users). If a male was chasing a woman down the street yelling “you pussy is tight” and she reported it to the police, surely this would be enough ground to warrant a proper investigation and protection measures to ensure that this does not happen. But why is it that harassment on the internet is not taken as seriously? While there are measures like ‘blocking’ a person or reporting them, these yield very little results because of the ease in not only registering but also contacting desired targets by bully’s.
In conclusion therefore, although there is a wider recognition of the importance of the internet from both international organizations like the United Nations as well as intellectuals and social commentators, there is very little being done to protect those who have access to the internet from cyber-bullying. This is because the top management of leading internet sites are largely male (making example of Twitter and Facebook) and hence the prioritization of female security and cyber bullying has largely been ignored, despite the evident urgency with which internet security should be prioritized, especially in Africa where it offers an accessible gateway to information.
 ‘dream hampton’ prefers her name not to be capitalized as a tribute to bell hooks