29 Mar 2017

When Social Media Turns Deadly

by Verlie Oosthuizen, Partner, Durban,
Practice Area(s): Social Media / Cyber Crimes |

One of the greatest problems with propaganda is its effectiveness in driving communities to act in seemingly insane ways – extreme examples of this would be the propaganda machine of the Nazi regime or the terrifying Radio channel encouraging the Rwandan genocide in the 1990’s.  But those instances did not have the reach of social media.

Recently, South Africans witnessed another wave of xenophobic attacks in the Gauteng area with Pretoria being a hotspot.  It has become increasingly clear that social media is used as a very effective tool in “fanning the flames” and directly contributing to the hysteria.  In a press release from the SAPS on 24th February 2017 the Acting National Police Commissioner stated the following:

“It is disturbing to note that fake news, false messages and hoax images and videos are being circulated in an irresponsible manner via social media.  Last night a video of a crowd sharpening dangerous weapons was circulated as having taken place in Hillbrow recently when it had in fact been filmed in Durban in 2015. All must take responsibility for safety in South Africa and refrain from being part of the problem by spreading false messages and promoting panic.”

Nobody can deny that social media is used prolifically by many of the people touched by the xenophobic violence or directly involved in it... it is very possible that it is used as one of the major news sources in those areas. Anybody with a mobile phone is capable of filming a provocative clip and posting it online.

Twitter has come out to say that they are clamping down on instances of hate speech while trying to preserve the right to freedom of expression.  They have implemented a new policy which will aim to curb the incitement of violence and harassment. It is a difficult balance to achieve, especially in very volatile situations such as South Africa faces now.