Online bullies have made our lives living hell

Gathoni Wamuchomba, Githunguri MP, Mwende Macharia, a media personality and former Chief Administrative Secretary Nadia Abdalla.

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • As per Kenya’s 2018 Cyber law, a person found guilty of cyber harassment is liable to a Sh20 million fine or imprisonment of not more than 10 years.
  • A 2015 report from the Internet Governance Forum lists infringement of privacy, surveillance and monitoring and damaging one’s reputation as actions that constitute OGBV.

Nadia Abdalla is a popular young woman leader who uses social media to advocate gender equality.

As of January 31, 2023, she had 30,624 followers on Twitter. She describes herself on the bio as a mental health advocate and a “conversationalist breaking biases,” going by the hashtag #SheBreaksBiasAfrica.

One way she breaks the biases is using social media, especially Twitter, to educate the masses on the importance of gender equality and their role in ending inequalities that widen the socioeconomic gap between men and women.

Former Chief Administrative Secretary Nadia Abdalla at Rowallan National Scouts Camp in Nairobi, October 11, 2021.
 

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

“I’ve constantly used my advocacy skills to educate the masses about their roles in advancing gender equality,” she says.

In January 2020, when she was 28, former President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed her Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) in the Ministry of ICT, State Department of Innovation, and Youth Affairs. New CASs have yet to be appointed. The Public Service Commission has shortlisted those to face interviews.

Throughout her term, Ms Abdalla used her voice to point out gender discrimination and called on men and women to support gender equality. But her online advocacy has often subjected her to sexist gendered comments and abuse—forms of harassment that constitute online gender-based violence (OGBV).

“Many of my posts have drawn backlash from social media users,” she says.

“When people see me, they forget that there is Nadia as an individual with personal views, and then there is also Nadia who is an advocate and champion for conversations that are uncomfortable in our society.”

The sexist and misogynistic posts cannot be paraphrased or reposted as they defy Nation Media Group’s editorial policy. And she confesses that at first she didn’t even know that what she was going through was OGBV.

A 2015 report from the Internet Governance Forum, a best practice forum on online abuse and GBV against women, lists infringement of privacy, surveillance and monitoring and damaging one’s reputation as actions that constitute OGBV.

Others are harassment, which may be accompanied by offline harassment, direct threats and targeted attacks to communities.

Using sexist gendered comments and indecent images to demean women or abusing a woman for expressing views that are not normative are all considered forms of harassment.

Further, a 2021 report by the Institute of Development Studies on Global evidence on the prevalence and impact of OGBV notes that it should be understood as “part of a continuum of abuse where normalised behaviours, such as sexual harassment in public spaces, shade into behaviours widely recognised as criminal”.

Of greatest concern is that Ms Abdalla exemplifies the rising risk to technology-facilitated abuse against women.

Internet as an empowerment pace

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation considers cyber violence against women “a problem that urgently needs to be addressed if the Internet is to remain an open and empowering space for all.”

A joint 2020 study by Web Foundation and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts established that OGBV was getting worse. Yet law enforcement agencies and the courts are failing to take appropriate actions in cases where digital technologies are used to commit acts of GBV, found a 2014 Web Foundation Web Index, which analysed policy and institutional responses to OGBV in 86 countries across the world.
“Women don’t know about online gender-based violence. Even for me, I had to research it,” she notes.

The violence left her with psychological turmoil. “At the beginning, they (sexist gendered comments and abuse) used to affect me. At times, I would take time off social media; one or two months,” she shares. “But then I realised that if we are to bring about change, then I need to understand people from where they stand and where they come from.”

Gathoni Wamuchomba, Githunguri Member of Parliament and a vocal woman political leader too, has been a target of OGBV. She reported the incident, but, as she says, “there is very little commitment from the security agencies to enforce the law-Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act (2018).

Githunguri MP Gathoni Wamuchomba. 

Photo credit: Moraa Obiria | Nation Media Group

“Personally, I have a case I reported at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) in 2020, and it has never been acted on,” she says.

“When you go to the DCI and they tell you they are waiting for the Communications Authority of Kenya to respond two years [down the line]... that tells you there is no commitment to implement the law.”

In her case, someone had used her image and identity to spread propaganda on Facebook. She was concerned that since last November when nude photos of a woman musician were shared online, no action had been taken against the perpetrator.

She proposes creation of special units at the DCI to investigate OGBV so that "they (detectives) don't ask you what is this about online gender-based violence? Or did they rape you, No! Then, there is no evidence, go away.' "

Perhaps, a unit like this one would save many like Purity Vishenwa, alias Pritty Vishy.

Ms Vishenwa is a plus size content creator and social media influencer with 86,700 followers on Instagram, the platform where she is most popular.

As of February 20, 2023, she had 346 posts. In each of the latest 20 reviewed, she was a victim of trolling from not less than three followers. Some called her a frog or equated her to wildlife. Others went to the extreme of sexist remarks. These offensive comments, insults, body shaming and sexist and mean statements are a pain to her, she says.

"But what can I do?" she helplessly asks during the interview early last month.

She says 90 per cent of the time she is cyberbullied by women. Many times she has contemplated quitting social media, but her mother's words of comfort buoyed her up.

"I've got some telling me 'go shape up your body first. You don't fit to be a social media influencer.’ I'm like eh! Okay…,’” she says.

"I'm deeply indebted to my mother. She has always been my strongest social support. She reminds me to always remain focused and ignore the bullies."

Over time, she has developed a positive attitude towards herself. This tactic has enabled her to build a strong shield against the attacks aimed at taking away her self-esteem and discouraging her from doing her work.

Her view is that "nothing can be done," to stop online violence against women.

But there is something one can do.

Mwende Macharia, a media personality, has set her own guards to stave off attempts to violate her online. Before she deactivated the function of sending her direct messages on her Facebook account, people would randomly send her offensive messages and images. She also has a self-manual on social media communication.

“I've learnt to interact with my social audience differently. I know what to post on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. And the language to use," she says.

Mwende Macharia, a media personality who has set her own guards to stave off attempts to violate her online.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

While this has saved her the headache and sleepless nights that come with OGBV, some popular personalities have fallen victims.

In January, two women—a media personality and a content creator—were hounded with sex tapes, which they dismissed as fake.

Ms Macharia says legal action should be taken against those who abuse or attack others online. Unlike men, women who are influential leaders, politicians, celebrities and journalists suffer the most from OGBV, a category in which Ms Abdalla falls.

To exemplify this, I analyse how Twitter users responded to tweets from women politicians versus men politicians.

On May 16, 2022, then Kitui governor, Charity Ngilu tweeted: “I have joined @SalimSwaleh001 on @ntvkenya for a live discussion. Please, tune in to join the conversation.”

Of the first 26 comments on her post, 13 were either sexist or abusive. Some referred to her as a grandmother. Others dismissed her capability to discuss anything of substance, yet she was a governor and Narc party leader.

Meanwhile on May 15 last year, Kipchumba Murkomen, then Senator for Elgeyo Marakwet County, had tweeted “See you shortly,” while responding to a poster by a local television station notifying its followers of his appearance on an evening show.

Thirty-two comments followed. But only one manifested OGBV based on the IGF checklist. In this case, the Twitter user made a comment intended to tarnish his reputation.

Sadly, this violence is detrimental.

A 2022 study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and International Centre for Journalists found that women journalists were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to online attacks.

The three-year global study on OGBV against women journalists sampled 1,100 across 15 countries. Some 12 per cent said they had sought medical or psychological help, while some were suffering from online violence-induced PTSD. Further, the study found online attacks had taken their toll on the mental health of many women journalists; they were seeing therapists.

Seventy-three per cent of those interviewed reported having experienced online violence in the course of their work.

The study interviewed women journalists from Kenya, Nigeria, South, Lebanon, Tunisia and Pakistan. The others were from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Poland, Serbia, Brazil, Mexico, Sweden, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

In 2018, Kenya prohibited cyber harassment through the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, which, in part, prescribes it as indecent or grossly offensive communication.

As per the 2018 law, a person found guilty of cyber harassment is liable to a Sh20 million fine or imprisoned for not more than 10 years.

Ms Abdalla notes the urgency of empowering women to stand up to OGBV. “We need to train women to be more resilient because online spaces are the present and the future. If we don’t equip them now, we are going to have so many women shying away from these spaces all because they are scared of being attacked or criticised,” she observes.

Dr Peter Njagi, a psychiatrist and specialist in behaviour modification, outlines two factors that may be contributing to high levels of OGBV.

“There are high levels of stress (among the people) due to high cost of living and post-Covid effects; people are unable to feed themselves and their dependants,” he says.

"The drought has even made the situation worse. People are also angry at politicians; they feel like they are not helping much."

And so, people are projecting their stress on others, he says. It's even worse for women because in the eyes of society they are lesser and secondary beings, he points out.

Jealousy

Jealousy is another cause, according to the psychiatrist. “The celebrities or known figures become targets because they are popular and people are talking about them. So, there is some jealousy to bring them down by degrading them," he explains, advising victims to "take it that people are jealous of your success and ignore the attacks."

"You should not be discouraged; rather move on with your life and keep doing what you do best to prove them wrong."

Ms Abdalla proposes a remedy to avert silencing of more women online: “More women have to be bold enough to participate in engagements online.”

“More women have to be ready to be criticised online because one thing I’ve learnt is that nobody is going to agree or celebrate what you stand for, so you have to stand your ground and be conscious of the fact that whoever is telling something about what you do, is not telling it based on what they feel about you; it’s just a projection of how they feel about themselves.”

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