SOCIETY TALK

The moral and legal consequences of cyberbullying

The suicide of Caroline Flack caused an uproar on social media last weekend

In Summary

• Although celebrities are often targeted, ordinary netizens are also hit

Girl reacts to cyberbullying
Girl reacts to cyberbullying
Image: COURTESY

The hashtag #CarolineFlack was trending on Twitter all last weekend. As a non-watcher of the British reality show, 'Love Island', initially I was not familiar with the name. As it turns out, Caroline Flack was the host of the popular reality dating show, up until December of last year.

Flack was forced to step down from her hosting job on Britain’s ITV2 following an alleged attack on her boyfriend. She is said to have been bashed severely by the British press and on social media since her arrest. Already battling years of depression, Flack took her own life on February 15.

The death of Caroline Flack caused an uproar on social media. Ironically, on the same platform that was used to torment Flack. Cyberbullying is the dark underbelly of technological advancement. While bullying is not a relatively new concept, cyberbullying has redefined the parameters of bullying.

 

Bullying at one point existed in school compounds, but lately, bullying exists everywhere your digital footprint is. It has become the dark shadow that follows us everywhere our phones are. Platforms that were created to socialise, share moments and reconnect with lost loved ones are in turn being used to torment people on a daily basis. After all, we are all protected by the freedom of speech… right?

The first thing I learnt in communication classes was that freedom is not absolute. While we have certain rights that protect us, we have a moral duty to ensure that we do not use these rights to infringe on others. The freedom of expression that comes with social media has at some point tempted us to write out something snarky or mean about someone.

However, once you take in a couple of deep breaths and consider the consequences of your action, the feeling passes. What people do not consider about the Internet is that the words we write will exist on the World Wide Web in perpetuity. Given that this is the consequence of an impulsive response, I believe we all owe it to ourselves to think before we post something that might be hurtful to others.

Cyberbullying has been linked to the high rising number of suicides globally. In the Far East (Japan and South Korea), people go as far as live recording their own suicides on social media. Suicide is only one of the effects of cyberbullying. Other consequences of cyberbullying include: withdrawal, depression, fear of devices and social media platforms or a fraught desire to assimilate.

Although celebrities are often the targets of cyberbullying, other social media users are not exempt. All it takes to be a target is to write a post that is seen as negative, or to spread rumours or a rivalry that is taken to the extreme.

In Kenya, many celebrities and regular social media users have found themselves being on the receiving end of the brutal firing squad also known collectively as Kenyans on Twitter. This is not to say that KOT is used to bully people, but woe unto you if you poke the beehive that is KOT.

Even Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta fled from the Twitter scene sometime last year after the trending hashtag #someonetelluhuru. Uhuru Kenyatta is not the only public figure to be ousted from social media. Other victims of cyberbullying include the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, David Maraga, Nairobi woman representative Esther Passaris, gospel musician Jimmy Gait and musician Willy Paul.

 

While some people might shun the idea of being socially and morally responsible for their online actions, they ought to be aware that cyberbullying laws exist in the country. Article 27 of the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Bill 2018 states that, “A person who, individually or with other persons, wilfully communicates, either directly or indirectly, with another person or anyone known to that person, commits an offence… the person is liable, on conviction, to a fine not exceeding Sh20 million or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years, or both.”