The dangers lurking in social media

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SOCIAL media is here to stay. That’s a fact.

The various forms of social media have revolutionised the world. It has truly made the world a global village and its merits are beyond doubt, but there is also a rather dangerous element to social media.

Penny Sparrow found this out when she made a statement on Facebook, comparing black beachgoers to “monkeys”. As a result, the Umzinto Equality Court ruled that she had to pay R150000 to the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation.

Recently, a University of Pretoria (UP) student leader, Luvuyo Menziwa, who made comments on social media in which he threatened to kill white people, was suspended from the student representative council pending an investigation by the university. It is not yet known what action will be taken against him.

Cyber-bullying has also taken centre stage over the past years as young people target others on social media, causing great harm and, at times, leading to the suicide of the victim.

Somehow, people seem to feel more entitled to say things on social media where they may go unchallenged. It gives many people the opportunity to be abusive, threatening, disrespectful of others and, even more dangerously so, to make claims which may or may not be truthful or which could only be substantiated with difficulty.

And while one party has his or her say, the other party’s unwillingness or inability to engage on social media may impact on the need to make both sides of the story known. Social media can be used to incite and could cause irreparable harm to individuals and structures while those making the comments often walk away without any consequences as a result of their actions.

Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of the South African democracy and is enshrined in our constitution. Yet, such freedoms are not unfettered by responsibility and accountability.

Is there a way to hold people accountable for what they say – and what they forward – on social media? Should there not be more action taken against those abusing the opportunity afforded by this form of communication? In the cases mentioned above, a start has seemingly been made. Is it enough? I’m not sure.

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