At the age of 21, Uganda’s Anita Fabiola Kyarimpa was on her way to building a career on television. At that tender age, she was already a presenter of NTV’s ‘Be My Date’ show and the opportunities were beginning to flow in, till photos that she had privately taken on her phone were stolen and uploaded on the internet. Then the bullying started. Some people accused her of having all along been wearing fake hips because she looked smaller in the photos compared to the ones she had leaked herself for publicity purposes. While there were so many on her side, there was also equally a big number that tossed, turned and ripped her apart and all this was playing out on the internet as the world watched.
In the end, Kyarimpa lost everything. She was sacked from her job and some of her friends were not interested in associating with her. Almost one year later, she has disappeared from the social scene and moved to Nigeria where she is said to be trying to start a new life.
But that is Fabiola and the unfortunate nude photo leak. There has been so many other disturbing incidences.
When beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014, his then 25-year-old daughter was grieving for her father’s untimely death but on Twitter, two accounts were opened and the people behind them and their followers used the handle as an opportunity to taunt the bereaved girl accusing her of her father’s death and posting distorted photos of what they claimed was her father’s dead body. She later quit the micro-blogging site but two years later, she still says that the incidents left her shaken.
That social media has become a major part of our lifestyles is something that can’t be denied. Sara Payne, 45, whose daughter Sarah was abducted and murdered in 2000, had been forced off the social media network after suffering online harassment. Her friend and fellow campaigner Shy Keenan tweeted that Payne had endured “over 10 years of unrelenting stalking/harassment”.
But these are not isolated incidents.
What was once a tool to engage in self-promotion and direct interaction with friends, family and the public has become a poisoned chalice with many using the platform to unfairly criticize, bully and spread negative energy around.
But is cyber bullying a threat or a trivial matter?
Shiffah Mwesigye thinks that unless someone is threatening your life, cyber bullying is trivial.
“I can take cyber bullying seriously only if someone is threatening your life but otherwise I expect anyone who is old enough to be on social media to be able to fight back, to press the ignore button or to simply block the bully.
Anyone who doesn’t feed you should not have the power to bring you down,” she says.
For Anthony Kagabo, cyber bullying is not something that exists in Africa as much as it does in Europe or America.
“Yes there are cyber bullies in Africa and they are mostly political noise makers, but they are not to be taken serious because they never follow through with whatever they are saying because in most cases, they are people that you know,” he says.
But Enoch Musoni thinks that cyber bullying and harassment should not be overlooked.
“Many people are using cyber space to fleece others while others are using it to “have fun” tormenting other people. Unfortunately, these bad practices are going to be with us for a long time because technology is progressing even further,” he says.
He, however advises those who are hooked onto cyber space to be wary of whoever friend they accept on social media.
“It is best to befriend people one knows in real life than having 5000 or more followers. It is also good to always change passwords after some time so as to avoid hackers and if one realises their account has been hacked, it is better to delete it than be haunted by someone in cyber space,” he says.
Lee Ndayisaba thinks that cyber bullying is real and can be damaging.
“I think the psychological and emotional wounds inflicted are hard to quantify unless you are the victim, and to the rest it can pass as a sort of entertainment. In our part of the world, we are only lucky that it has not gone to the extent of causing victims to take their own lives like it is in the US and Europe,” he says.
He says that the issue could also lie in the fact that there is little awareness about the existence of any cyber laws or the crimes related to cyber space.
For Carol Mutesi, cyber bullying should be taken seriously especially when it comes to children and young adults.
“If you are in very active Facebook groups, then you have seen bullying first hand. Have you seen the comments on some posts? Most are never really warranted. If you are weak, you cannot be a member there. Young people, especially teenagers are all over social media these days. Their peers have to take one compromising photo of you and put a caption and in a short time, the photo will be flooded with all sorts of comments. It seriously has the potential to destroy a kid’s confidence and self worth,” she says.
Herbert Muhire says that it is hard to control what is on social media and says that while some people know the issues that come with the internet, some are unaware of how damaging it can be.
“Cyber bullying reaches far and wide within a matter of seconds. You can’t control who thinks what or does what.
Nor can you control the recipients. Some people share content even without inquiring from the owners, little knowing about the consequences,” he says.
He says that it is still tricky to regulate social media for example but laws should be put in place.
“Ideally there should be a law restricting somehow. Not to say completely clumping it down like it’s done in China,” he says.
Cyber bullying is a problem that crept up on us, and has the potential to eventually sweep us away. As technology will not disappear, neither will cyber bullying. All of the protective software in the world will not alter the cruelty. The best we can do is follow the advice of ignoring or blocking or not reading the messages all together.
The threat is real but so can be the measures.
What is Rwanda doing about cyber crimes?
There is not much in terms of bullying but so far, the government has made some progress in putting in place cyber security.
In March last year, the Cabinet approved the first ever National Cyber Security Policy aimed at protecting public and private infrastructure from cyber attacks and to safeguard personal information of web users, financial/banking information and sovereign data.
The policy will establish an environment that will build trust and confidence when people use ICT. It will ensure that we have whatever it takes to protect our interests, and also ably collaborate with other countries because the threat is global.”
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a forum where governments work together to address economic and social challenges of globalisation, cyber security has become a national policy priority.
This is largely because the Internet and ICTs are essential for economic and social development and form vital infrastructure, OECD says in a 2012 document.
“As the Internet economy grows, the whole economy and society; including governments, become increasingly reliant on this digital infrastructure to perform their essential functions,” reads part of the paper titled: Cyber security Policy Making at a Turning Point.
However, this has come under threat from cyber crime that is reportedly evolving and increasing at a fast pace.
The policy paves way for many things including building the requisite legal frameworks and capacity building to thwart cyber threats.
Key in its ingredients are: strengthening the regulatory framework; promotion of research and development in cyber security; human resource development; creating cyber security awareness; and information sharing and cooperation.
Under the new policy, government will also set up a department fully dedicated to fight these internet-based criminal acts.