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‘Social media platforms must uphold democratic values’

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By Dr Noluthando Phungula

Social media has become central to most people’s lives and presents an important platform for political participation and public discourse.

Initially celebrated for their potential, digital technologies, particularly platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have come under increasing scrutiny for undermining human and political rights. Such platforms have created fertile grounds for online violence against women in politics.

Online violence can have negative effects on politically active citizens, male or female.

Such abuse may lead them to withdraw from public debates entirely. While this may be, my focus here is on social media abuse towards politically active women that seeks to silence or exclude their voices. It would seem that the internet presents a double-edged sword for women.

Social media provides a platform for women in politics who wish to express themselves, control their narratives, reach their voters and build a community of support. Such platforms may be used to encourage community engagement and offer budding activists a space to carve their path as confident political voices in the public arena. But, like many aspects of our society, the use of social media can be biased against women and has opened up new avenues for harassment of women politicians.

This online violence manifests as insults, mockery, hate speech, misinformation, embarrassment, physical threats, and sexualised misrepresentation. These are aggravated by the anonymity and expansive reach of social media. The psychological abuse that women face online violates their sense of personal security in ways not experienced by men.

Online violence experienced by politically active women is significantly different from that experienced by men – from its objectives, its impact, frequency, and form. This online violence against women in politics seeks to achieve political outcomes, targeting women to harm and drive them out of public life, while also sending a message that women should not be involved in politics.

The impact of this online violence is to have unsettling effects on the political aspirations and participation of women in public life. It has the potential to undermine their presence and agency in the political arena and in public discourse. The aim is to overwhelm the number of politically-active women and to limit the variety of opinions and ideas that are proposed in public discourse.

It would seem that South Africa has a habit of only addressing issues after they have caused havoc. Looking back at the country’s track record, it was only after the deaths of multiple women that the country identified the phenomenon as femicide. Within the domestic sphere, the violence is termed domestic violence but the common practice in the political sphere has not been given much attention. How is this type of violence against women different and why must it be prioritised?

To begin with, the world, continent and countries have called for the inclusion of women in politics and in leadership. It then becomes important that we understand and address some of the factors that contribute to women’s exclusion within such spaces. The need to counter the violence that women in politics face online is not just an important part of promoting women’s equitable political participation but is vital for democracy and public engagement.

It would seem that the country’s stance on policy formulation is genderneutral but this should not be the case. We need not be shy about pointing out issues that affect women. This becomes increasingly important when you want to see more women in politics and in decision-making. We must understand the issues that may pose a challenge to women’s participation in the political sphere.

Women in politics are violated because of their gender and they are perceived to be intruding in spaces dominated by men. The aim of such acts is to deter other women from entering the space. In the case of social media violence, such acts may lead women to censor themselves, be silent, or withdraw from political discourse online.

Social media abuse against women in politics can drive women offline and, in some cases, out of the political realm. In addressing the issue, I propose the need to first accept the phenomenon of violence against women in politics as a reality in South Africa.

Before the 2016 local government elections, the country witnessed many women in politics dying as a result of their political participation. A similar pattern was seen once again as the country prepared for the local government elections last year.

There is a need to pay greater attention to the harassment and violence that women face online which can lead to physical attacks and even death. In spite of the challenges presented by social media, the solution is not to walk away.

An alternative is to embrace the platform and turn to various stakeholders including social media companies, individual politicians, political parties and governments to find solutions. Social media platforms must be able to promote, protect and uphold democratic values.

Given the influence of social media, there is a need to collaborate in efforts to attain and implement solutions for a more open, tolerant, inclusive and safe public platform for women.

Phungula is from the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.