From Clicking to Beating: Dealing with Physical Violence

It all innocently starts when you’re scrolling through your social media. You see a post, somehow it triggers your emotions, and the way you respond to it says it all! We interact with thousands of posts every day as we ‘roam’ from one social network to another. The rate of interaction with each post varies from just scrolling a post, giving it a reaction, whether liking it or ‘haha’ to actually commenting on it. In the process, some interactions can fuel longer conversations, some of which can be pretty hot. Can these conversations spiral out of control and lead to an actual ‘fistfight’? 

What we communicate online reflects what we experience in our day-to-day lives in the real world,” suggests Kennedy Mmary, a Public Relations and Digital Communications Expert from Dar es Salaam in interview with the author. A Gallup 2019 Global Emotions Report confirms that the world is getting angrier and angrier every day, with war-torn areas showing the highest rate of anger. We mostly share online what immediately surrounds us, including our frustrations. As real as ‘road rage’ is, online rage works in a similar way. It is important to understand that not everyone can take differing opinions in a positive manner. A UNESCO report shows that 49 percent of female journalists face online hateful language, with a similar number having to deal with harassing private messages, including rape threats. In some instances, social networks have been used to organize collective moments of physical violence, a classic case being the January 6th riot on Capitol Hill after the 2020 US Election. 

Social media are basically a tool for more social interaction. As it is in the real world, posts with emotional content tend to get more reactions. Sadly, some social networks manipulate this reality for their own personal advantage. In 2021, a Washington Post article showed how Facebook manipulated its ranking algorithm to bring more engagement to posts with the ‘angry’ reaction, which, according to the company’s data scientists, were disproportionately likely to include misinformation, toxicity, and low-quality news. It is with such posts that many people get to pour out their negative emotions, which may be hurtful to others. However hurtful these interactions may be to others, they can be just as damaging to the one airing them out. “Negative comments online can affect the psychological well-being of the one  making out” warns us Mr. Patrick Hassan Moto, a Dar es Salaam-based psychologist”. It is like an explosion of what has been contained inside for a long time and can result in mental breakdown, which can have all sorts of effects: eating too much or eating less, sleeping too much or having trouble sleeping or, in the worst case scenario, leading to someone harming themselves”. 

Violence on social media can spread also at the societal level, engaging broader groups of people and fueling pre-existing conflicts. The role of social media as a driver of conflict is increasingly being researched, and international fora and institutions are exploring the challenges and implications of online dynamics for peace. It was the case of the 2021 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, where was highlighted, among others, the radicalizing effect of echo chambers.  ‘Online rage’ can be damaging in many ways and to a number of different parties, including legal issues for the authors of hateful comments. The best way to ‘catch digital flowers by the thorns’ is to control your anger before it controls you. Before finally clicking ‘Send’ or ‘Post’ to that hateful comment in your draft post, you need to consider the cyber laws in your country that stand against exactly what you are about to do. Every country has one, in Tanzania being Article 23 of the 2015 Cybercrime Act, which states that ‘a person shall not initiate or send any electronic communication using a computer system to another person with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass or cause emotional distress.’ 

It is easy to get annoyed and triggered by the contents we interact with online, but before we do something that we may regret, we ought to think of the consequences of our reaction, not only on ourselves and on the ones we’re replying to, but on the others who may interact with our comments as well. How constructive is your reaction?  Did you take time to look at the post from all the possible angles or perspectives? Are you sure that you are not jumping to conclusions? Did you give yourself some time before responding? Maybe stop scrolling and come back after some time? Do you still have the same feeling as you had when you immediately saw the post? Did you take some breaths before replying? If not, you better keep your rage to yourself! 

Imani Henrick is a Digital Rights Advocate and journalist, currently working with Kings FM Radio in Njombe, Tanzania as Station Manager. She is a Founder of Digital Rights focused Podcast (Dig It With Imani the Podcast). You can follow her work here.