Twitter users name and shame alleged rapists, but experts issue stern warning

2019-09-04 15:29
Protesters outside the Wynberg Magistrate's Court ahead of the suspect's first appearance. (Tammy Petersen/News24)

Protesters outside the Wynberg Magistrate's Court ahead of the suspect's first appearance. (Tammy Petersen/News24)

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Twitter users are outing alleged rapists on the social media platform following the brutal rape and murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana, allegedly by a Post Office employee.

But media experts have warned against this.

Twitter accounts have surfaced in reaction to the #AmINext hashtag to "expose" alleged rapists.

Accounts such as @AmINext_sa, @HSurvivers3 and @helpsurvivers have received messages from women outing their partners. These pages then "expose" the men, posting their names and pictures.

Some of the pages also share posts of missing people, as well as unconfirmed kidnappings in South Africa.

The administrator of the @AmINext_sa account spoke to News24 about why it was created.

"I decided to start this page because of the hashtag #AmINext which came with Uyinene's death. A lot of women were wondering whether they are going to be next or it's going to be them AGAIN because of the rape that's been going on in our country," the administrator said.

"So far, a lot of women have been triggered because of the rape cases that we're going on (sic) and they needed someone to speak to, that's when this page came alive."

READ: 'Sorry you had to be alive when being a woman is all it takes to set a man off' - Uyinene's sister's heartbreaking tribute

But the person wants nothing else out of it, except that survivors find healing, the administrator said.

However, William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), told News24 that these pages could spell bad news for survivors and administrators.

"Your rights and your legal obligations don't change just because you go onto a social media page," he said.

"It might be harder to track some of the people there but certainly, if the police have the interest, they could pursue that," Bird added.

Criminal defamation

He added that the accused people have every right to pursue charges of criminal defamation.

In addition, he said that while people were outraged at the levels of gender-based violence in the country, and justifiably so, "these kinds of responses aren't going to deal with the problem", especially in terms of prosecuting alleged rapists.

Bird added that it wouldn't just be the social media accounts that are implicated.

"If the purpose [of this] is to simply expose them and defame them, they need to be very careful about doing those things precisely because that person may very well bring legal action against that account and anyone else that retweets it, that posts it, that comments on it may equally be liable legally speaking," he said.

This was regardless of whether or not they were guilty, he said.

Bird added that he was unsure how exposing people dealt with the wider problem of gender-based violence in the country.

Going through the judicial process can be extremely traumatising, he said, but alleged perpetrators would likely know who accused them should their names pop up on social media.

"Unless they're guilty of raping a number of women, they will probably know who it is that put their name there and that won't result in a positive outcome," Bird said.

He added that it was unlikely to have a positive effect on those accused, who were most likely already violent, to change their ways.

He added that the accounts should be wary of spreading information before checking its authenticity and accuracy, saying "it's a very risky thing to be doing".

Social media law expert Emma Sadlier sent a stern warning in a statement on Wednesday. 

Sadlier said that while she understood the importance of "digital vigilantism" in society, especially where there is an ineffectual justice system, exposing people before they have had a chance to state their case could ruin lives. 

"Yesterday we were inundated by calls from people whose lives had been ruined by these accounts – people who had lost their jobs, received death threats and lost major business contracts as a result of these posts," she said. 

"Men have been brandished as rapists in the absence of a known accuser, any details of the alleged offence or any criminal charges being laid."

She added that legal recourse is available.

"[T]he reputational consequences on the accused can be tremendous and often irreparable. Where the allegations are untrue/embellished or unfounded, the person accused has a number of legal options available."

These options, Sadlier said, include suing for defamation, laying a criminal charge of crimen injuria (infringement of dignity) or obtaining a protection order under the Protection from Harassment Act.

"There is no question that publishing information about crimes against women is in the public interest, but the posters of these anonymous accusations would also need to show that what they are saying is true," she added.

"If they do not know who is behind the account, the legal options are more limited - they could lay a charge of crimen injuria against the anonymous account and request that the police submit a law enforcement request to Twitter to reveal the identity of the account holder," she added, however, this was harder to do. 

Sadlier added,"The audi alteram partem principle is a fundamental tenet of South African law. It basically means "listen to the other side", or "let the other side be heard as well". It is the principle that no person should be judged without a fair hearing where each party is given the opportunity to respond to the evidence against them."

"This principle ensures that they actually have a case to answer before their reputation is ruined," she said.

Read more on:    rape  |  gender based violence  |  social media
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