Online Harassment By Wanjiku Ng’ang’a

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Can technology make people safer from threats like violent extremism, censorship, cyber bullying or persecution? Imagine this. You’re a woman, you’re married and you have a kid. You post something at work on social media and in reply you are told that you will be raped. Details of where, when and even your home address are sent for everyone to see. That feels like a pretty real threat, doesn’t it? Once the information is out there on the internet, you are most likely to lose control over it. Would you still go home that day or even continue with what you were doing?

Scrolling through social media feeds feels like a harmless part of our daily lives. But is it actually as harmless as it seems? Our growing and unchecked obsession with social media has unintended long-term consequences on our mental health. Online harassment is a worldwide problem that’s growing very fast. Research shows that nine out of ten victims don’t tell anyone that they are being harassed or bullied.

What is Online harassment?

Online harassment/cyber bullying has become this perverse art of figuring out what makes people angry, afraid, insecure and then pushing those pressure points until they are silenced. When this goes unchecked, free speech is overlooked and even the people hosting the conversation call it quits. They close up their comment sections and forums all together. This clearly confirms that we are losing spaces online to meet, socialize and exchange ideas.

This in turn enables the spread of miscommunication, lack of job opportunities and insecurity. What if technology could instead enable empathy at scale? If we had technology that understands the emotional impact of language, we can build empathy. We can have dialogue with people who have different politics, beliefs, values and personalities.

In today’s world, technology is so prominent that it’s easy for us to forget that it wasn’t long ago when the internet didn’t even exist.  Computers are just about in every home as well as most schools giving children access to technology they have never had before. Bullying is certainly not something new but it has changed over the years. Before this revolution, bullying stopped when the bell rang or when we had to go home after the end of the day.

But when it comes to online, bullies are not confined to any sought of playground or costumes. People, especially the young generation across the world are being tormented, threatened, harassed and embarrassed. Online harassment is seven days a week, 24hours a day. It can happen anytime, anywhere leaving silent victims with no place they can feel safe.

What many of us fail to realize is that the root of the problem begins with the behavior of children and teens using social media. One of the unique things about cyber bullying is that it can be done anonymously. With resharing and reposting, things that are said online have the potential to go viral. When we create fake accounts just to abuse others, we really don’t know what they are going through. Words are hurtful, they impact people. Deleting inappropriate messages or pictures does not change anything. Nothing disappears off the internet.

How do we evaluate what we are saying online and while offline? Most of our young people don’t really think before they type or share something on the internet. Amy J. Martin, an American speaker and author once said, just as we teach our children how to ride a bike, we must also teach them how to navigate through social media. Raising children especially in today’s world can be very challenging. But what we are able to do is learn from people’s experiences, tragedies and triumphs.

Imagine if machine learning could give commenters real time feedback about how their words might land on others. Just like facial expressions do in face to face conversations. When people use technology to exploit and harm others, they are preying on human fears and vulnerabilities. If we want to build technology that can overcome the challenges that we face, we need to learn and understand issues and build solutions that are human as the problems they aim to solve.

The messages we post online about a person, a place or even an event are very important. Those few seconds you decide whether or not to post can mean a lot in the future. When we are online, we need to use words that are encouraging. If adults can be better listeners and students be empowered to stand up and intervene, we can change a person’s life. How amazing would that be? So, before posting something online, we need to ask ourselves about the consequences of our actions.

By Wanjiku Ng’ang’a  | Email: mnganga701@gmail.com

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Siasa Place is an NGO formed 2015 that aims to create an enabling environment for women and youth mainstreaming into our body politics.

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