The internet has no firewall for patriarchy

By Oupa Makhalemele , Laurie Less

As we celebrate Youth Month, in remembrance of the historic uprising in Soweto and Langa townships this month 43 years ago, we reflect on the challenges young people face today. No doubt the past few years have been the toughest since our democracy. Levels of unemployment sit at 27%, the economy has not really recovered from the 2008 global recession. Forecasts predict it’s not going to get better soon. And who has borne the brunt of all this? Our youth unfortunately.

In the first quarter of 2019 youth unemployment was more than double the national average at just over 55%. More than one in three South Africans are in the age cohort between 15 and 34 years old. The numbers clearly point to a brewing crisis.

A quick glance at the news headlines in the past few weeks demonstrate just how troubled young people are. Stabbings and gangsterism in schools, rising levels of teen pregnancies and, particularly in Gauteng, a spike in new HIV infections among teenagers. Meanwhile, a silent killer is spreading across the country, gnawing at the young population right under the collective nose of parents – teenage suicide.

Why are young people taking their lives?

Statistics show that 9.5% of all non-natural deaths among teenagers are due to suicide. Millennials, those aged roughly between 18 and 35 today, is a generation seemingly burdened with some of the heaviest stressors in many years. They have been described as the most depressed generation in history. Research has shown that Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a personality disorder characterized by exaggerated sense of self-importance and disdain and lack of empathy for others, is three times more prevalent among millennials than in any generation before.

NDP is said to be worsened by exposure to certain media content, where typically images of people living ‘fabulous lives’, such as what we see in so-called reality shows, advertisements and similar content, are to be found. A regular diet of entertainment content depicting people living flashy lives, displaying their perfect lives, perfect houses, perfect families and perfect bodies is driving young people to despair, fueling a sense of inadequacy and wreaking havoc to their self-esteem as they realise that they compare poorly to these paragons of the good life.

The maze that is social networks

Comedian Trevor Noah parodies the people who go to extremes to find that perfect picture frame – the right look, right angle, replete with the right background and the ‘beauty’ application that rids one of all wrinkles and flaws – before clicking that selfie button and posting their picture with the tag: “I woke up like this”. Social media fuels the false reality many young people aspire to, driving many into a sense of inadequacy, low self-esteem and anxiety. The internet is a primary form of communication with others, and has taken huge chunks of time away from real life interaction with real people going about real life activities – to virtual lives where a well-placed salad dish here, the right hair and makeup under just the right light there, will transform an ordinary girl into a #slayqueen to be envied by all and sundry.

Like real life, social media does not like girls much

In truth, the Internet is a great source of education and entertainment where young and old people can make meaningful relationships and broaden their worldview. Unfortunately, the darker side of online living has devastating consequences for some. And young girls tend to draw the short end of the stick. It is on social media that they are stalked, harassed and bullied.

A term has been coined to highlight this phenomenon, ‘cybermisogyny’. There have been cases in South Africa where teenage girls have taken their lives because of the fallout following an indiscretion captured on camera and posted online. In cases of sexting or sex-tapes that have gone viral online, it has been the girls or women involved in those images that have had to absorb society’s disapproval, driving some to isolation, depression and in worst case scenarios – suicide. It would seem that the Internet has no firewall for patriarchy.

Boys are also targeted by cyber-bullies, and in some cases, it leads to suicide too.

Ground-breaking research recently released by INTERPOL and ECPAT international into the online sexual exploitation of children suggests that when online images or videos of child sexual abuse depict boys or very young children, the abuse is more likely to be severe. When it comes to violence in schools: is it happening more often, or are we being made aware of it because of viral videos depicting it? What about the potential demonstrative effect – could a teenage boy in township B be emboldened to carry out an attack on a school-mate or teacher because they saw another teenager doing the same thing on video in township A?

Increasing Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) on the internet

Combatting online child sexual abuse material (CSAM) is an uphill battle as we see illegal content being posted on the internet each day. An increasing number of stakeholders are however collaborating to do everything possible to keep our young people safe.

INHOPE (the International Association of Internet Hotlines) have taken up this fight with its key message being collaboration. Their hotlines are a resource set up to offer the public a way to report illegal content. The Film and Publication Board (FPB) together with our fellow African regulators are in discussion to develop a single hotline number. Continental resources will be pooled to increase efforts to combat this scourge and obtain help for victims.

Given the anonymous nature of reporting potential CSAM to hotlines, internet users are less wary of punitive action. Reports that confirm the legitimate presence of CSAM are passed on to relevant law enforcement agencies and or Internet Service Providers (ISP). In many cases, the service provider hosting the content is given notice to ensure rapid takedown of the material.

INHOPE has just released international statistics used to report incidents of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) for the period 2016 to 2018. Fig 1 below demonstrates a year on year increase of 14% to a high of 77% respectively of reported incidents over the period.

Of these the number of images and videos assessed were 370,729 in 2016 decreasing to 259,016 in 2017 and then spiking at 337,588 in 2018.  More than half of these videos and images assessed were illegal. The top five hosting sites hails from the US followed by the Netherlands. These statistics are in keeping with the SA hotline results for the period 2015 to 2019 which shows the top two sites for hosting illegal CSAM material being the US followed by the Netherlands.

INHOPE statistics show that the victim profile is largely female 94.24% in 2016 decreasing to 80.49% in 2018 in the age category pre-pubescent 55% (three to thirteen years old) in 2016 spiking to 89.13% in 2018. The statistics suggest that paedophiles are targeting young girls and that this age category presents the hunting ground over the past three years. Research shows that regular consumers of child pornography are ever demanding increasingly younger victims as well as increasingly more vile content as they become desensitised. This spike in targeting increasingly younger victims, is a clarion call for urgent action from parents, caregivers and educators, as younger children are placed in danger.

What does this mean for us as parents, caregivers and educators? When these realities of our society, require that we become extra-vigilant in monitoring the online activities of our children.

The modern and busy parent outsources the care of children to television and mobile devices that provides fertile ground for paedophilia & child sexual abuse.

But there are specific targets that should be aimed for. There should be advocacy with government policy makers to stop the proliferation of illicit material, the democratisation of media and content should be closely examined and or regulated. Over and above that, more severe sentencing must be introduced and institutions must collaborate in order to vigorously campaign and educate our caregivers to understand the plight our children.

As the age-old adage goes, willing buyer willing seller – as long as there is a market for this illegal content there will continuously be illicit content spewed over the internet, so our collaborative efforts must focus on political, structural as well as psychosocial pillars in society.

The largest number of illicit items are found on image hosting sites 75% in 2016 increasing to 84% in 2018 followed by file hosting sites. An image hosting service allows one to upload images to an Internet website. The image host stores the image onto its server and shows one different types of code that allows others to view that image. Often at a cost to the end user.

Once illicit content is found the vast majority is removed between 0 and three days and some cases escalated to Interpol.

The Film and Publication Board (FPB) has an Online Monitoring unit whose key job it is to monitor CSAM content. The number of incidents reported are 3836 over the period 2015 to 2019. The largest reported category being internet browsing and the highest number of calls originating from the Eastern Cape followed by Gauteng and the Western Cape.

Social media is here to stay but most of what you see is carefully staged and crafted make-believe. Ordinary, everyday life is simple and without glamour but potentially much more wholesome and healthier for everyone to grow and develop into functional members of society. The challenges young people face today are immense, this is a challenge to society to take heed of the warning signs and help young people navigate and negotiate this complex maze.


Citizens are encouraged to report suspected CSAM, which can be submitted anonymously to these hotlines. The FPB hotline address is www.fpbhotline.org.za or call them on the tollfree number 0800 428428

More stories in Issue 112

Contributors

Oupa Makhalemele

Oupa Makhalemele works in the Research, Policy and Advocacy Unit at the Film and Publication Board. He has published widely on transitional justice, local government and youth and identity in South Africa.

Laurie Less

Laurie Less is currently employed as the Shared Services executive at the Film and Publication Board, the content regulator and agency of the Department of Communications. She was previously employed as the Executive manager at Wits university Clear-AA a specialist M&E centre and in various government agencies. She has over 12 years experience as an […]

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