The Internet Era: End of Digital Illiteracy and Beginning of Digital Battery?
Photo: courtesy of Liz Guantai
Technology has massive potential to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. On Saturday 7 May 2016, I was excited to attend the Mozilla Club Leadership Training Event, in Nairobi, Kenya, together with my fellow global champions and other young women and men enthusiastic to learn about the web. Mozilla is dedicated to use ICT for development changes globally. Through the establishment of Mozilla clubs worldwide, it aims to teach the web to as many people as possible, in both urban and rural communities in the form of digital teaching aids, offline trainings and events.
Mozilla foundation has partnered with Empower Women in a programme intended to include more women in STEM. This is an important initiative as it aids the attainment of both SDG5 on the empowerment of women and girls and also SDG9 which seeks to build infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrial industrialization, and most importantly, foster innovation. This initiative by Mozilla is a jackpot for women’s economic empowerment (WEE) as the web is certainly an important aspect in the lives of women. It is a source of information, resources, job opportunities, research, education, entertainment as well as a major forum for women empowerment campaigns. A participant in the forum attested to having learnt how to bake through YouTube tutorials while a friend recently got a scholarship to study in a foreign country through an internet application. Thanks to the internet, we are all interacting through the Empower Women platform!
My main highlight of the Mozilla “teach the web” training was the dialogue and discussion on internet perpetrated offenses, particularly cyber bullying. Despite the internet being one of the biggest reasons for global civilization, it is also a source of worry and panic. It is currently a platform for gender-based violence, often referred to as technological abuse. It has become a tool for harassing and injuring the reputation of others. Unfortunately, the internet is being misused to perpetrate injustices that some try to justify as ‘revenge’. Any person can be a victim of common digital violence like being stalked by a stranger, intimidated by use of threats, or have their faces used in obscene or disturbing Photoshop techniques.
Online attacks may be direct or indirect. The attacker may be having the motive and intention to injure, annoy or hurt the victim, or may simply do so without knowing the effect of his actions. Cyber bullying is commonly perpetrated through the following forms:
- Spread rumors online or through texts
- Post hurtful or threatening messages on social networking sites or web pages
- Steal a person’s account information to break into their account and
- Send damaging messages which may take many forms of:
- Sending mean messages or threats to a person’s email account or cell phone
- Pretending to be someone else online to hurt another person
- Taking unflattering pictures of a person and spreading them through cell phones or the Internet
- Sexting, or circulating sexually suggestive pictures or messages about a person
Women form a greater percentage of the victims. Statistics report that 73% of women are bullied online, with 40% of girls reporting cyber bullying before the age of 15. They may be an easy target because of the already existing labels on how women are expected to look, behave or say. Therefore a women who seems to act, speak or look differently from the ‘norm’ may easily be the object of harassment. Young girls often receive mean comments on social media because of their skin color, choice of dress and body size.
Do we ordinarily think about how that simple comment we make on social media could affects another person? Often we do not. Most bullies think it is funny to bully others. They do not think of the negative impact it has on the esteem and reputation of the victim. It can lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicide. As if that is not enough punishment, the internet, as the saying goes, never forgets. Once information is circulated on the Internet, it may never disappear, resurfacing at later times to renew the pain of the bullying to the victim.
A few years back, a famous radio presenter in Kenya, considered a plus size woman, posted an innocent photo of herself attending an event on social media. And all of a sudden the whole Kenyan social media went awash with rude and insensitive comments about her body size. One person must have started the whole string of comments by posting a single ‘joke’ about her size. Others then reacted by topping up with other comments in the name of jokes and humor. Moments later the topic of the woman’s weight had become a famous topic of mockery with the hashtag of her size trending for several days. They referred to her as ‘fat’, ‘ugly’ and other uncouth titles, creating numerous reckless and offensive words and phrases that by their very face were harmful to any person’s esteem. I paused for a moment to think about what she felt. Like other victims of cyber bullying, she must have felt miserable. Her self-esteem was bruised. Probably she blamed God for not creating her otherwise, or her ancestors for passing on some genes that warranted a reason to be ridiculed. That was malicious and cruel of the insensitive chain of bullies.
To subject a person to such mental persecution, amounts to infringement of her human and constitutional rights, as the Bill of Rights, provides that every person has the right to be free from emotional and psychological torture. Nevertheless this right goes unprotected when it comes to this class of women whose lives are tormented by bullies online.
Crimes perpetrated against women through the aid of the internet have further advanced. Teenagers are being trafficked into prostitution using online dating sites. According to recent documentary sources on sex trafficking, the minors are often lured by the so called pimps who take advantage of their curiosity and age, promising them quick money and sell them to notorious sex maniacs. The practice is particularly frequent in the sex tourism industry.
In many jurisdictions, legislation on cyber bullying is still ambiguous or non-existent. Social media harassment is still considered an emerging issue and laws are yet to keep up with the upcoming internet offences that may not be documented in the books. The biggest challenge is to differentiate between the freedoms of expression and the limits to it in an online platform. During the Mozilla digital literacy discussion, some participants argued that once a person choses to create a post on social media, in the form of a picture, status or otherwise, then that person has extended to others the right to express their thoughts at will on their post. Where to draw the line between free speech and bullying is still a matter of contention. Furthermore it is also difficult to attribute it to a single person since the bullying may be a combination of comments from several users. However, it is clear that the lacunas on internet policy and legislation are loopholes for bullies to get away with it.
Mozilla also advices internet consumers on maximum privacy considerations for social media accounts. Web users should not disclose too much personal detail online, especially to strangers. More advanced techniques such as encryption of data, screening of users and blocking of data to unauthorized users may also be used. All participants were in agreement that we certainly need more comprehensive safety policies to protect internet consumers from cyber bullying, including a gender policy on technology-based gender violence.
Thanks to the Mozilla web literacy training session, I am now more knowledgeable and informed on various aspects of the web. Most of all, as participants, we all felt challenged to reconsider our online habits to ensure that we neither fall victims of cyber abuse nor injure other web users as we enjoy our internet rights.