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The internet is bigger than the Sum of our Fears


William Bird is the director of Media Monitoring Africa, Ashoka and a Linc Fellow.

Deputy Minister of Communications Pinky Kekana has made a key input on making the internet a safer place. However, there are some key issues that she needs to consider.

It is very positive that we have joined the International Association of Internet Hotlines (inHope). It demonstrates what we can only hope will be the further development of South Africa’s participation in multi-stakeholder and global forums that seek to address various elements of our emerging digital reality. For far too long we have been left behind or seemingly simply passed up opportunities to take our emerging digital reality forward.

We know that just as we have economic inequality in South Africa, our digital divide is just as real and far too many people still don’t have or cannot afford access to the internet. Much has to be done to ensure that the public have access to fast, affordable, quality broadband.

The deputy minister’s piece hints at the concomitant necessity of bridging our digital divide, by focusing on children. Perhaps she could have highlighted explicitly the need to ensure that as much as we need to focus on digital access, we need to also focus on digital skills and digital literacy in particular.

It is perhaps even more significant that our government is highlighting the importance of children and in particular supporting mechanisms to protect them.

Our Bill of Rights recognises both the need to protect our children but also notes that their best interests in matters that affect them are of paramount importance. Far too often, children only seem to hit the political agenda where they serve to score cheap political points, or they are used to justify a populist right-wing agenda. Not only are children generally victimised in such approaches, or marginalised because of their lack of political power, but their own rights to agency and participation are also systematically ignored. The Victorian adage, “children should be seen and not heard”, seems still to be the go-to approach in most instances where children are concerned.

The deputy minister is correct that our digital reality presents many dangers and threats, she is also correct that the state and its agencies need to act appropriately to combat child sexual abuse material. She is also correct about the power of social media and alerts us to key issues that we need to deal with as a country.

Some of these are automated decision making, the spread of misinformation and the rise of “dodgy” news. It is one of the reasons why we will be hosting a cool event at the end of the month with an international expert, to talk specifically about the role of misinformation and algorithms.

While our participation in InHope is to be welcomed, it is essential that as much as we need to focus on dangers and threats, we also look into the significant opportunities that a digital reality and social media present to our children.

Our digital reality thus presents us with two competing issues: protecting our children, fighting fruitcakes, racism and hate speech, and at the same time ensuring broader access and developing greater digital skills for children and marginalised groups as well as promoting freedom of speech.

The days, where the state can simply regulate what our children are exposed to are gone. Unless states seek to operate in an anti-democratic fashion (which the South African public will not allow) the only way we can mitigate the dangers and grow from the benefits is to ensure that we adopt a multi-stakeholder approach.

The global nature of the issues we face, of the players involved and the value that each can and should bring, means that we need a multi-stakeholder approach to tackle some of the issues that the deputy minister has raised. Perhaps this is the precursor to our president’s announcement in his State of the Nation address, of a multi-stakeholder Digital Industrial Revolution Commission.

It is also essential that as much as we need to work with government and global players, (like Facebook, Google and Twitter), we also need to work with child rights organisations and experts, civil society and equally importantly, children.

The good news is that we already have precedence for this approach. For the last three years we, as Media Monitoring Africa, have been running a programme (more info on Web Rangers here) with the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, (yes, I know different department from the Department of Communications), the Film and Publications Board, Google, Facebook, MTN, PPM Attorneys and Digital You.

Amazingly enough we have the government, working with the private sector – and not just the private sector but completing global giants and even a mobile operator and with civil society all pulling in the same direction on one thing!

What’s the thing? It’s working with children and youth to equip them not only with digital literacy skills but media literacy skills as well.

In essence, each partner brings their expertise and then equips young people to help skill other young people in their school on how to be safe online, how to effectively use social media, to understand the dangers and the opportunities of the internet and perhaps most critically, to ensure that they have the skills to self-regulate.

Anyone with children knows that if you ask your child not to do something they will in many instances see it as a challenge on how to do exactly that thing. So tell them they can’t use the internet, not only will every geek at school laugh, but they will also show your child a way to get onto the internet.

Our best and indeed only hope for ensuring we protect our children and help them realise their potential is to equip them with the skills they need to self-regulate. Clearly, this doesn’t mean that other key stakeholders can sit back and fold their arms, rather it presents us with a means of ensuring that we take children with us when we look at new regulations and policy – they will after all be the ones who have to live with whatever we build.

We cannot and should not expect government or platforms to be monitoring the screens of our children. We want to ensure that our children, if exposed to something they don’t want, or are exposed to cyberbullying, know what to do.

They need to know how to report and act. It is then up to the adults, to government, social media platforms and civil society to ensure mechanisms are effective, that if there is child sexual abuse material it is removed and submitted to the relevant authorities, so those responsible can be brought to book.

As we seek to combat hate speech and misinformation, it is critical that as much as the adults play their part, children and the public in general are equipped with the skills and knowledge to report, to combat and build social cohesion.

We know one of the adverse effects of the digital world is that the fruitcakes from misogynists to racists appear to have greater voice. We also know how easy it is to spread misinformation. We do need to act on these but we also need to highlight the positive, the credible media, the bodies that are building social cohesion, those who challenge racism and sexism, those who build our democracy instead of seek to break it down.

Children are our future, no question, but they are also our here and our now, and we need to be working with them, listening to them and giving them the skills to self-regulate. If we don’t, if we only focus on what the adults and states are dong, if we only look at combating instead of building, we can be sure that not only will we be left behind by our young people but we will be giving them fewer reasons to listen to us in the first place. DM


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