Racism thrives on social networks

2012-05-05 17:44

But justice is swift – and tweet

At the beginning of the week, Jessica Leandra dos Santos was a young model making waves and winning fans with what she described on her personal website as “smouldering good looks and sizzling personality”.

By Friday afternoon, she was being described by people around the world as a “former model”, stripped of her sponsorships, reviled by former supporters and the subject of an investigation by the South African Human Rights Commission.

A racially offensive tweet – 140 characters posted “in pure frustration and anger” – is at the centre of Dos Santos’s downfall. Her tweet read: “Just, well took on a an arrogant and disrespectful k***** inside Spar. Should have punched him, should have.”

Within hours, she was trending on Twitter both in South Africa and worldwide – and scores of people reported on the social network that they were laying complaints with the HRC.

Men’s magazine FHM immediately stripped Dos Santos of her title as winner of the magazine’s Modelbook 2011 competition. At least one company that sponsored her announced on Twitter that its association with Dos Santos was over, and others scrambled to distance themselves from the disgraced young woman.

Yesterday, Dos Santos issued a statement in which she wrote: “I have had time to reflect on my actions and I don’t have the words to express my sincere remorse . . .  I realise that I could have handled this differently.”

Dos Santos said she had decided to get professional coaching to help her deal with instances of sexual harassment.

“I am still very young and if I can learn how to handle this more appropriately, perhaps others can also benefit and learn from my experience.”

But hers is not the only example of racial hatred on a social network: a young man described as a Cape Town student is also in hot water after allegedly using Facebook to call black people “f***ing brain dead monkeys”.

It is not clear whether the Facebook page is genuine – City Press attempts to find it were unsuccessful – but screenshots of the alleged slur and subsequent comments on the status update have gone viral.

The HRC’s Vincent Moaga confirmed that complaints had been laid about both incidents.

Though he could not provide figures for social media-related complaints, Moaga said the HRC received complaints on a regular basis. He said they were a result of the unregulated nature of social media.

Jude Mathurine, New Media Lab head at Rhodes University, said Dos Santos’s outburst could possibly be a reflection of how she might engage in real life.

“Without social media the conversation we’re having now would probably be happening in private,” he said, adding that her comments were legally actionable.

Moaga said the manner in which people conducted themselves on social networking sites posed a challenge.

“Freedom of expression has limits. Social networks are important platforms for sharing information and ideas,” he said.

According to digital analytics company Socialbakers, Twitter has about 1.1 million registered South African users, of which fewer than 500 000 are active.

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