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FOR WHOM THE BELL TROLLS

Insta karma: Social media mobs’ retribution is deadly ‘digital vigilantism’

Images: iStock/Vecteezy

It’s a new year and there are already new social media casualties. To survive being killed off in the digital world, there are rules to stick to on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.

Reputation is everything … and then there’s Twitter … and of course there’s also its complicated cousin, Instagram.

The little blue birdie in the wrong hands is deadly vicious, sometimes just deadly. Instagram, with its holiday-destination posts and cutesy reels of cupcake decorations and kitten videos, seems innocuous enough, but it can fast become a shouty platform for biting back with venom by those needing to make a statement.

It makes Twitter and Instagram the Squid Games of social media platforms, where survivors have to outperform each other, adapt to rules that are illogical but inviolable, and at the end of any thread there’s the cruel reality that it’s just a matter of time till everyone is taken out by a hashtag or false facts retweeted so many times they add up to a social media death.

And the bodies of social media victims pile up pretty quickly too.

Former TV personality Katlego Maboe and his ex, Monique Muller, who is also the mother of his child, jump to mind for the cringeworthy details of their busted relationship. In 2020, Muller took to social media to blame Maboe for giving her a sexually transmitted disease and accused him of cheating on her. In the video she posted at the time he can be heard admitting his affair and naming the “other woman”.

Muller ended up seeking a protection order against Maboe.

But this week, the story took a turn, with a court finding in Maboe’s favour. In a statement after the ruling, Maboe’s publicity people said: “The court has not made a finding of acts of domestic violence that were allegedly perpetrated against Ms Muller, and as such the matter has been dismissed.”

But as quickly as he took to social media to rah-rah his victory, Muller was typing out her responses, warding off trolls and posting screen grabs of what she called examples of Maboe’s attacks on her over the past two years of their spat.

It has also been a week of social media accusation against a University of Cape Town Student Representative Council (SRC) member on charges of sexual assault. The tweets sparked a social media outcry and campus protests, and now an official university investigation and criminal investigation.

On the international front, someone like JK Rowling tops the list of the dozens of social media casualties in recent years. The Brit author may be the genius behind Harry Potter but her comments about menstruation only applying to women are offensive to transgender people. Unrepentant, her stance has left her cancelled and her social media accounts are mostly about defending her position rather than about anything to do with her writing or advancing creative professional projects. She was also shunned from the 20th-anniversary reunion events for the Harry Potter movies.

It’s been a similar situation for author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who was the target of a social media campaign after what has also been called her transphobia. The campaign against her saw UCT SRC members using Twitter to call for an open lecture the acclaimed Nigerian writer was due to present in 2021 to be cancelled.

“As an institution which actively promotes intersectional feminism through its curriculum, it is important for us to recognise that Ngozi Adichie enhanced the divide in the feminist community with her anti-trans remarks, instead of using her platform and influence to highlight how trans women also have a right to simply be recognised as who they are without having to defend their womanhood,” the SRC tweeted at the time.

Several other high-profile authors and academics added their voices to have her cancelled, using social media not just to criticise but also to allow for personal attacks.

Adichie, also unswerving, penned a scathing essay in The Guardian in June 2021, calling out young people on social media for “choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion” … “so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow”. But in the end the damage was done. Adichie’s ardent fans have retreated.

Mixed in with these examples of reputations shredded on social media is everything from those who have shown themselves unequivocally to be outright bigots and racists – think the ongoing Chinese hate speech case before the Equality Court right now. The case erupted over anti-Chinese posts on the Facebook page of a public animal sanctuary organisation. There’s also Adam Catzavelos’s racist holiday video in 2019. These racists are evidently taking up oxygen, and Twitter and Facebook have done the world a favour.

But there are also those accused but not charged or found guilty of sexual harassment and assault; bosses of high-profile companies exposed as bullies and feeble leaders who play favourites, but are unable to state their case. Bad tippers are also outed and even road-rage nuts are written off without any deeper interrogation about what might have happened before and after the posting of a 30-second clip.

And over the past two years there has also been trolling and vitriol for those daring to nail their colours to the mast on issues that inevitably divide a room – issues such as climate change science, Covid-19 vaccinations or abortion rights.

Also cast into social media purgatory are those who stray from their lanes, stumbling into woke minefields, maybe learning their lessons, but who aren’t seen to back-pedal fast enough or to apologise with the “correct” kind of contrition.

And those who do ask for forgiveness often end up sending their mea culpas into the Twittersphere only for them to be more confirmation of wrongdoing that fuels the next round of retweeting and reposting.

Social media mobs pin them all to crosses before they can even argue their points or plead context and facts. Disagreement and differing opinions are enough to see someone written off, ostracised, kicked to a corner to die a social media death.

It makes Twitter a weapon for the swift killing of reputations and also one that gets away with not taking responsibility when it gets it wrong.   

Of course, Twitter is not all bad. Its power to name and shame has also been a potent force for societal change. It can quickly raise issues and forge personal, albeit one-dimensional connection, and when it builds steam as “trending” it becomes the viral outcry that can force society to stop, reflect and also to change. It’s the #MeToo and #FeesMustFall or #BlackLivesMatter movements that force accountability and action.

An American pop artist could also take to social media to slam the sexist and inane interview questioning she had to endure from local podcaster MacG in January.

It was pushback to win back power for Ari Lennox after the demeaning questioning. Her tweet, though now deleted, again put the spotlight firmly on how easily toxic masculinity and sexism can go unchallenged.

Twitter can also still boost consumer rights and some corporates do react to public complaints and step up to resolve issues raised on social media platforms.

And in 2022, Twitter is where people have been connecting to post about their Wordle score – having some fun, some light-hearted competition rather than sniping and calling one another out.

It’s the good, the bad and the ugly still. And it means Twitter, Insta, Facebook and WhatsApp aren’t going anywhere soon. There’s still the caution that these platforms are likely to stay ahead of the courts and of forums where good ol’ facts and findings matter more than noise and retweets of confirmation bias.

It leaves the question then about whether it’s possible to come back from a social media death and, perhaps more importantly, whether a resurrection is even worth it.

Media lawyer Emma Sadleir Berkowitz says it’s the deep stuff to reckon with because we are in an age of social media vigilantism. Social media mobs are intent on calling out, cancelling and publicly shaming if they believe their agenda trumps someone else’s – regardless of the harm it may cause or any real-life consequences.

She says it’s happening not just to adults but also to children who are not properly equipped emotionally to take the blows from public shaming, for example.

As she points out, Monica Lewinsky on her social media accounts acknowledges that had her sex scandal with US President Bill Clinton in the 1990s taken place in a time of social media she would probably have committed suicide.

Sadleir Berkowitz says coming back from reputational damage and public shaming starts with assessing damage – sometimes there’s more wisdom in “just leaving it alone”.

She says the law does also restore some balance when people choose legal action to find remedy.  

“If you’re publicly shamed, invariably, that will be defamation. For the person making the accusations – if what you’re saying is true and of benefit to the public then you have a legal leg to stand on, if not then things become blurry.

“But we are living in a world of digital vigilantism, post-truth, fake news, guilty until proven innocent and cancel culture,” she says.

Ultimately, she’s unequivocal that social media is “definitely something to be afraid of – not simply something that can be managed”. It means caution, some common sense and choosing not to weigh in or wade in deeper than you can tread.

As she puts it: “We can’t undermine the effect of public online shaming and cancel culture. It’s the worst sentence and some people never make it back from that. It’s why I say the best thing about social media is that it gives everyone a voice, but the worst thing about social media is also that it gives everyone a voice.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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