As online hate speech hits Africa, social media firms told to act

As online hate speech hits Africa, social media companies called for action

Zimbabweans are the target of hate speech across Africa as Kenya’s 2022 general elections approach

Social media used to be a source of light entertainment for Nora, a 47-year-old Zimbabwean domestic worker living in South Africa. But lately it has become a source of fear.

Scrolling through his Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, he finds posts accusing Zimbabweans of everything from crime and drug rings to corruption – the kind of xenophobic hate speech he fears could fuel violent attacks against migrants.

“People are writing that we should go home, that this is not our country, that we are bringing crime … the news spreads so fast,” said Ms. Nora, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity.

“These reports can lead to violence,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she ironed clothes at her employer’s home in Johannesburg.

Ms Nora is one of an estimated 180,000 Zimbabweans living in South Africa on Zimbabwe Extension Permits (ZEPs), which expire at the end of the year after the government said last year they would no longer be renewed.

The earlier permits were first issued in 2009 to help legalize the status of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants fleeing economic and political unrest in Zimbabwe, giving them the right to live, work and study in wealthier South Africa.

The termination of the permit is being legally challenged by legal groups who say there was no public consultation and insufficient notice.

Anger against foreigners – at a time of a slowing economy and rising unemployment – is being fueled by online campaigns such as #PutSouthAfricansFirst and #ZimbabweansMustFall, social media experts say, calling on platforms to do more to monitor and moderate hate speech.

“These digital spaces act as red flags whenever a xenophobic event is about to happen… you feel the tone,” said Mr Vincent Chenzi, a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe’s Department of Peace, Security and Society.

“There is very little moderation because these stories are shared in echo chambers, often in vernaculars, so they fly under the radar,” said Mr Chenzi, who has been researching online hate speech since 2016.

Twitter said its trained teams review and respond to messages every hour in multiple languages, adding that 50% of offensive content “proactively surfaces for human review, rather than relying on reports from people using Twitter.”

Meta, Facebook and WhatsApp’s parent, said in response to a request for comment that it would soon announce an update to its regular threat reports.

Patrols and protests

Social media platforms have come under increasing pressure for failing to curb online hate speech, which activists say has led to violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar and ethnic minorities in Ethiopia.

Xenophobic violence in South Africa since 1994 has largely been directed against Malawian, Zimbabwean, Nigerian and Mozambican migrants and refugees in the country, rights groups say.

Migrant rights groups say foreigners are often scapegoated for economic problems rooted in deep structural problems and the failure of successive South African governments to turn post-apartheid freedoms into widespread prosperity.

But with the growing popularity of social media, online spaces can signal that physical attacks may be on the rise and can sometimes be used to incite them, Mr Chenzi said.

“Our infrastructure was devastated by the Zimbabweans and our health system is now failing because of this alien,” read one tweet from late July.

“South Africans must rise up and defend their motherland from these Zimbabwean rascals,” read another.

Street protests and patrols – such as those led by the recent Operation Dudula, which means “to push” in isiZulu – also blame foreigners for crime and other problems.

Last month, Elvis Nyathi, a Zimbabwean who lived in Johannesburg’s Diepsloot district, died after being attacked and set on fire, prompting rights groups to call for the enactment of a long-delayed hate speech law that was proposed in 2016.

“Elvis’s brutal murder followed several inflammatory statements directed against non-citizens by representatives of political parties and vigilante groups,” the Center for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria said in a statement.

The whole continent

Online misinformation and hate speech is also widespread in other parts of the continent, from Kenya to Ethiopia to Ghana.

Ahead of Kenyan elections on August 9, researchers have found that platforms such as TikTok, Facebook and Twitter are flooded with harmful content, including incitement to violence against ethnic communities.

Last week, Kenya’s ethnic cohesion watchdog said it had given Facebook seven days to deal with election-related hate speech and incitement or face suspension.

But Home Affairs Minister Fred Matiang’i and Technology Minister Joe Mucheru rejected the ultimatum.

“We are working in a democratic setup and we will not interfere in social media,” Matiang’i said in a speech on Saturday.

Meanwhile, in Ghana, rights campaigners say they have seen an increase in hate speech against LGBTQ+ people after a bill criminalizing being gay, bisexual or transgender was introduced in parliament last year.

Activists say the bill has fueled homophobic sentiment both offline and online, with increased reports of discrimination, harassment and physical attacks against LGBT+ people.

“Even the digital space is not a welcoming place for the LGBT+ community now,” said Danny Bediako, founder of human rights organization Rightify Ghana.

Cultural contexts

Digital rights campaigners said efforts by tech platforms to curb harmful content, particularly in developing countries, have been woefully inadequate.

Moderation processes fail to understand the specific cultural and social contexts and the lack of knowledge of local languages ​​and dialects, allowing the rapid spread and proliferation of problematic content with potentially serious consequences.

Online platforms should monitor any increase in hate speech and inform the government without silencing healthy dissent or debate, Mr Chenzi said.

In Johannesburg, Ms Nora fears that online hate speech will lead to further divisions, hampering any efforts to tackle discrimination and abuse.

“People need to stop shouting and abusing online; we need to have real-life conversations to understand who we really are,” she said.

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I am Sanjit Gupta. I have completed my BMS then MMS both in marketing. I even did a diploma in computer software and Digital Marketing.

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