CARPING POINT: Cyberbullies need to be unmasked and dragged into the daylight to be publicly shamed and prosecuted, writes Kevin Ritchie.
IT WAS Nelson Mandela who famously said that the capacity to communicate will become tantamount to a human right. The problem is, give many people a smartphone and the urge to communicate everything from their deepest conviction to their most recent bowel movement becomes a compulsion.
Descartes might have said, “I think therefore I am”, but in the world of dopamine rushes from affirmations on social media, it’s become a case of ‘I’m liked therefore I am’, often with devastating consequences. We have become very good in South Africa at calling out the racists, and particularly policing white racism, but there is a helluva lot that goes on that stops just short of hate speech but is still cyberbullying of the worst kind.
Sport, it seems, brings out the very worst in us. Once the internet version of the stands at a soccer game, the contagion has hit rugby with the same devastating effect. It’s one thing heaping scorn on tactics or a referee’s decision-making, it’s a totally different ball game when it descends to the level of personal threats against individuals. Top referee Wayne Barns had to go to the police last December after online threats were made against him, his wife and even his children, following his officiating of the France South Africa game last year.
Last week Bok captain Siya Kolisi had to publicly appeal to fans to keep it clean and calm before the Ireland game on Saturday. The fans took heed, those at the game at least, having fun with their Irish counterparts before and after the game in Paris. The trolls on the interwebs though couldn’t help themselves. Afterwards referee Ben O’Keefe had his Wikipedia entry changed to suggest an inappropriate secret relationship with the Irish captain Johnny Sexton, while Bok wunderkind flyhalf Manie Libbok has been getting crucified for the two kicks he missed (although Faf de Klerk – who missed as many himself – got a typical reprieve).
It is one of the enduring ironies that people feel a lot freer to say things in cyberspace than they would ever do face to face with the objects of their loathing. The easiest reason is one of comparative physical safety. Most of the rugby players (and refs) are bigger and definitely fitter and stronger than the average keyboard warrior. Saying to their faces what they write instead, would land most of them in hospital because it’s invariably objectionable, deeply disrespectful and wrong – or in the dock being sued for defamation.
But still they continue.
We all have rights – and we all have equal and opposite obligations not to be hurtful and vicious arseholes. We have the freedom to believe whatever we want, but not the absolute freedom to express that without consequences. Cyberbullies need to be unmasked and dragged into the daylight to be publicly shamed and prosecuted. We got it right with Penny Sparrow, Adam Katzavelos, Velaphi Khumalo and Justine Sacco.
It’s high time the ‘fans’ were given a card, referred to the bunker and either banned or fined – or both.
* Kevin Ritchie is a seasoned former newspaper editor and current media consultant. He writes the weekly Carping Point column.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the DFA.