Statista.com states that nearly 350,000 Instagram stories are posted every minute around the world. With rising smartphone and internet usage in the country, more Tanzanians than ever before are making the most of these tools, and while they can be great for staying in contact with friends, posting content and advertising your business, there is a dark side to social media – also known as cyberbullying.
Picture the scene – you log onto your phone to check the likes and the comments on photos, which you posted on your social media earlier that day. But instead of seeing positive messages and likes, you instead see hurtful comments, insults and people saying negative things about you. The more people comment, the more the post gets shared, and the harassment gets worse. This is an all-too-common experience for many social media users globally, who regularly go through what is known as cyberbullying, and it can have a huge impact on the victim’s mental health and wellbeing.
It is something that Shamira Mshangama, 26, from Dar es Salaam went through last year, she says: “I experienced online bullying last year in September. I shared some posts on social media after surprising my husband with a PlayStation 4, as he loves playing video games. But not long after posting, I started receiving mean comments, questioning why I would buy that kind of gift for my husband, and that I will create poverty in the family. Others said that my husband will be busy playing video games and will no longer take care of me. I received so many hurtful words, just through buying this gift for my husband.”
While Shamira says that the experience made her more wary of social media, she still uses it to this day, but has had several meetings and training on social media bullying and now has a greater awareness of how to handle it. But for some, cyberbullying can mean they leave the social media space altogether.
Doreen Mbalazi, a 23-year-old public relations specialist from Dar es Salaam grew so tired of online bullying that she deleted all her social media accounts, she eventually returned – but over four years later.
Doreen remembers her experience as having a big impact on her self-esteem. The bullying, she says, began when she started posting photos of herself on her social media pages. At first, she was met with positive feedback – but it soon turned nasty: “One time my friend phoned me and asked me to look urgently at my Instagram page. When I looked at my most recent photo, there was a girl that I knew previously from school commenting on my pictures – she was body-shaming me, and saying horrible things, and that led to other people commenting and sharing my photo. I felt embarrassed, I didn’t feel like the internet was a safe space for me.”
Doreen said that this is where the cyberbullying started, but not where it ended. After breaking up with her boyfriend at school, she said she also experienced her ex-partner speaking badly about her in WhatsApp groups, and sharing personal things about their relationship. After taking time out from Instagram and Facebook for almost four years, Doreen returned to social media with a new aim – to advocate against bullying and harassment.
Her new-found peace and strength to face her cyberbullies came after interaction with a platform called ‘Jeshi la Dada’ – an online support group standing up against cyberbullying and online harassment, which they see as a factor affecting women’s online participation.
Jeshi la Dada, established in 2019, believes that cyberbullying is an issue which affects more women – and this hinders their involvement in digital spaces, potentially impacting their careers and businesses. Their research found that 75 percent of women they interviewed suffered from mental stress and anxiety due to their experience of online violence.
Doreen says the platform gave her information on how to deal with online harassment, as she previously found it difficult to share what she was going through: “sometimes you fear telling other people what you are facing. When I went to the Jeshi la Dada meetings I got advice on cyberbullying and it gave me hope. I learnt how to be free with what I post on social media.’
Viola Massawe, the Events Coordinator for Jeshi la Dada, said a group of women working in digital decided to start the platform when they noticed a startling increase in cyberbullying.
Viola believes that there is not enough information available on the laws and regulations around online bullying, which means that it often goes unreported. As well as providing the legal information to victims, they also provide emotional support to people that experience online harassment.
“Emotionally, it takes a toll. When people start circulating false information, or impersonating you, or saying hurtful things, it can make you feel weak. There have even been cases where women have fallen into depression because of all the negativity, even trying to commit suicide,” she said.
In addition to the impact on self-esteem, Viola shares that it could also impact a woman’s job opportunities: “if a woman experiences negativity on social media, it could reduce the chance of her working in the digital space, because she doesn’t feel safe online. And nowadays, most employers check social media pages, so if a woman were bullied or attacked, and she responded to defend herself, that could also impact her chances.”
While Jeshi la Dada are taking on the cyberbullies through reporting and blocking accounts, sharing legal information and offering emotional support and mentoring, Viola thinks that the issues need a lot more attention: “cyberbullying needs to be discussed more – it is affecting a lot of lives. We have had situations where people’s marriages have been ruined because of misinformation and wrong photos.”
The most recent initiative by Jeshi la Dada was a Gender Based Violence (GBV) workshop with the Tanzanian Police Force with the cybercrime department.
Detective Fabyiola Alphayo said: “we are aiming to reduce cybercrime, to ensure that the online space in Tanzania is safe and free of discrimination. Through this training I have learnt some new methods of handling the victim’s case as a former legal procedural before the matter is taken to the court of law.”
For Doreen, Jeshi la Dada has made her feel stronger than ever: “I feel free and good now using social media. If anyone bullies me, I know how to report it. Your social media page is like your house, and you are entitled to use your house as you want. I know how to deal with it.”
Cyberbullying is regulated under section 23 of The Cybercrimes Act, 2015. The section states that anyone found guilty of committing this offence is liable on conviction to a fine of not less than Sh5 million or to imprisonment for a term of not less than three years or to both.