Social media has exploded over the past decade with the Internet enabling people to contact each other from all over the world instantly. However, that does not mean that the cyber world is a bed of roses. Every day, thousands of people have to contend with negative, abusive, insulting, and threatening comments posted on, or linked to, their social media accounts. It can involve verbal abuse and name calling, offensive graffiti or posts and rape or death threats. So who are the primary victims of the cyber-bullying? In the case of Ethiopia it is women, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.
Three years ago, an eight-minute video created an outrage among the Ethiopian cyber community. The content of the video is a sexual scene depicting two housemates engaged in a sexual act. Big Brother Africa (BBA)—a reality TV show—explicitly showed a half nude Ethiopian woman named Betty being intimate with Bolt, her housemate from Sierra Leone. After the video went viral, Ethiopians on social media were quick to denounce her saying that Betty has brought shame to her country.
Many were angered and even requested the government to intervene by stripping her off her citizenship. Similarly, there was a group of volunteers who were looking for legal grounds to sue her.
In a country where sex is a taboo, the public’s reaction towards Betty was not taken lightly and there were many comments that suggested punishment. These comments of “punishment” include disciplining her in a vile, gruesome and sadistic erotic act. The violence they showed towards her makes is similar to the concept corrective rape (a hate crime in which one or more people are raped because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity), which exists in many communities in the world. Betty’s case was evident as to what extent the Internet can be violent and misogynistic.
In this day and age, social media has redefined, reinvented, facilitated and expanded social activism. The internet, especially social media, has caused unprecedented wave of civil disobedience, public demonstration and mobilizations. The Black Lives Matter movement and the Arab Spring are two of the major ones. Social media became powerful in disrupting and challenging the status quo. That is why new media expert, Andrew Breitabrt, say, “People can become the media themselves.”
Though the power of social media is shaking governments by mobilizing mass numbers of individuals into a political force that should reckoned with, it is also a space where violence, character assassinations, defamations and harassments exist.
With regards to women, cyber misogyny became part of the continuum of gender-based violence. Many women face misogynistic attacks, intimidation and policing. And the trend reveals that it is increasing at an alarming rate.
When browsing the various social media websites one can witness misogyny. Radio show host and owner Mimi Sebhatu is one of those people who has been attacked with insensitive comments regarding her looks, body and age. In many of the posts, she is not ridiculed for the idea she stands for, rather, she is insulted with words such as b****, prostitute, ugly and how she is not wanted by men in a very humiliating manner. It is not only Mimi Sebhatu; many women from various corners of life face intimidations, misogynic attacks and insults.
Host “Semonun Addis” on Ethiopian Broadcasting Service (EBS), Eden Berhane, is one of the many women who have faces misogynic attacks. She was harassed on Facebook, where she has more than 4,800 followers and 4,400 friends, to the extent of character assassination. She says that there are constant nagging messages from men who say that they are admirers and want to have coffee. According to her, if she does not respond, pornographic content depicting genitalia follows. “Of course, it’s possible to block and report men who harass you. That is something good,” Eden says.
At times, the online harassment takes the form of stalking when she blocks people. Some of them persist and impersonate other people and show up to continue the same attack.
Her virtual life is one heck of a ride and she says that she has even received shocking messages from a man who has rape intentions. “This is a place where consent is not asked and they are entitled to send whatever messages they want to send,” Eden says.
Apart from private messages, her picture has been publicly shared on a random page followed by sexist comments. She says most of the comments are not about the show she presents, rather, it is about her looks, or the way she presents her show diluted in a provoking manner.
Though she does not want to talk about it, recently, a famous blogger wrote on his Facebook page criticizing the content of her show. She says that that this blogger would choose his words carefully if the presenter was a man.
She prefers not to engage with her harassers. “Their intention is damaging people. They have time on their hands and it actually becomes personal. They are only focused on silencing people and I choose not to engage since it is pointless,” Eden says.
Though it is not clear if it is a serious warning or not, rape and death threats by strangers are common. Melana Abraham, a journalist who works at the state-owned Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) has received a death threat on Facebook. With more than 1,400 followers and 4,000 friends, Melana tries to engage on social media on various issues and that resulted in her getting a death threat. “I did not take it seriously. I am not somebody who gets scared easily,” Melana says.
She says that when she comments about feminism many take extreme stances and attack her in a sexist manner. She chose not to internalize intimidations and attacks. “I just give it cold-shoulder. These are coward men who hide behind their computers and chose bigotry rather than engaging in mature conversations,” Melena says.
Pornographic content, which often involves nudity and sex, is also becoming an ordinary thing for many women on Facebook. The other thing, which is experienced by women, is body policing. The pictures that they post on Facebook or Instagram are followed by improper comments and are told by both men and women, “to act according to their culture.”
These forms of harassments do not only happen in Ethiopia. In fact, it is a global phenomenon. A research conducted by The Guardian newspaper entitled: “The dark side of Guardian comments”, which was published in April, 2016, reveals the rising global phenomenon of online harassment. The UK-based newspaper decided to treat 70 million comments that have been left on The Guardian’s website—and in particular the comments that have been blocked by the newspaper’s moderators—as a huge data set to be explored rather than a problem to be brushed under the carpet. The research discovered that since 2006 out of the 10 most abused writers eight are women and the two men are black. This research states that the vast majorities of blocked comments, therefore, were blocked because they were considered abusive to some degree, or were otherwise disruptive to the conversation (they were off-topic, for example). At its most extreme, online abuse takes the form of threats to kill, rape or maim.
Blen Sahilu is an instructor in Addis Ababa University Law School. She has more than 2,800 friends and 5,500 followers on Facebook. Her presence on Twitter is also well-established with more than 15,000 followers. For Blen, insults are part of her virtual reality. “Some of the comments are so random that I don’t even think that they understand the context of the conversation. In that regard, I don’t take it seriously,” Blen says.
She says that the Ethiopians are more present on Facebook than on Twitter so the attacks are mostly on Facebook. Blen is part of a movement called the Yellow Movement—an initiative that was started at Addis Ababa University and is involved in safeguarding women and girls’ rights. They vigorously campaign against gender-based violence. Being part of this movement, Blen had to experience “terrible rumors” which aimed at damaging the reputation of their movement. For Blen the question becomes, “Would you engage with this? Or just leave it?” she responds.
“I try to outweigh the results and choose my negotiating method,” she says. Still she says that she does not what to ignore the issues. “Ignoring these harassments and intimidations means that nobody would be held accountable,” Blen says.
According to Blen, online harassments emanate from the patriarchic and sexist attitudes that exist on the ground.
“There is an obvious similarity between the offline and online patriarchal space. Offline women participation, degree of openness and self-expression are similar to what is being seen on social media,” Blen says, adding that when women express themselves, it is followed by insults. “If a man says what the woman said, the reaction would be different,” she says.
Blen also believes being able to be anonymous has also contributed to the existing cyber stalking and harassment. “It eliminates face-to-face confrontations and that makes it easier,” Blen says.
One of the issues she discussed on social media was the case of the brutal gang rape and killing of Hanna Lalango. She says that the social media community denounced the heinous act. “Though they condemned the vile act I still doubts if there is any space to look at the bigger picture, which are patriarchy and sexism,” she says. According to Blen, the view of feminism is distorted in Ethiopia and think of feminists as “men haters who are ready to dismantle marriage.” In that regard, she says that if she raises any issue related to feminism a stack of comments, including offensive insults, follow. Since she still wants to be part of this community, she engages by asking questions. Blen does not shy away from issues but also knows the contextual reality of the country.
In her vibrant online presence, what shocks her is the extent of silencing and policing and rape and death threats that are experienced by women. Many feminists question if the internet is safe for women. According to Blen, with regards to Hanna Lalango, some men were making the victim responsible saying that Hanna should not have gone to a hookah house. There were also others who were glorifying violence against women, Blen says. In that regard, one can mention a recent case involving a Brazilian teen, who was gang raped by 30 men. The photos and video was posted on social medias and that showed how the internet in some comfortable with. In fact, before being removed, some of them had amassed as many 500 'likes' and received several comments shaming the alleged victim.
Rediet Yibekal is a social advocate who started her online presence using Hi5 and My Space only to keep in touch with friends and create new ones. Now she is active on social media, particularly twitter. She says that she has faced online harassment, including aggressive violent comments and misogynistic attacks, one too many times.
“It is much easier to harass people that you disagree with instead of understanding their point of view. It does not take time, effort or willingness to be challenged. Thus, people tend to opt for the easy route,” Rediet said.
Surprisingly, this process also showed her how patriarchy is a system perpetuated not only by men but also women. She received a share of defamation from women. In this manner, she chose to be selective when engaging with people. “Unless I find it worthy, I don’t engage with people who are not even courageous enough to use their real name and their photo. Engaging with them is another form of legitimizing their existence. Thus, I don’t give them the power to dictate my actions,” Rediet says.
Because of this, she says that the internet is not friendly to women so she secures her social media account, be selective when it comes to adding new people, and is sometimes forced to block and report people on Twitter. According to Rediet, social media has diminished women into sexual objects. One example she raises is the case of Semehal Meles (the daughter of the former Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi). A video showed Semehal asking questions at the Meles Zenawi Symposium, which was held in Kigali, Rwanda. Many of the comments focused on her hairstyle; and the comments came from both genders. For Rediet, the disappointing part is that fact that instead of debating the ideas Semehal raised people resort to trivial and unrelated issues. Though she considers the internet as being a hostile space she still continues to voice her opinion.
“At the moment, I don’t believe that social media sites are doing enough to protect women from online threats. Collaboration between social medias, law enforcement and tech companies to leverage cutting edge technological resources is one partnership that could ease the filing of complaints,” Rediet says, adding that “unless online sexism is treated as real violence against women, it will continue to thrive completely unfettered.”