Technology is becoming an integral part of our democracy, in more ways than can be imagined. For young South Africans especially, it has been both a blessing and a curse. This is reflected in the role played by social networks like Twitter and Facebook, amongst others, in increasing social, political and economic discourse around the world. It is almost unfathomable that 20 years ago, these social networks did not exist. They have proven to have a profound influence on youth participation in democratic processes, social activism, and mass mobilisation et cetera.
It is because of technology that we no longer need to be physically in contact to mobilise society behind a common cause. Supporting this view is a project by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) - the Millennial Dialogue. This project assessed the youth's view of South Africa's political system, from daily governance issues to voting.
In relation to governance, we have seen how the lockdown has shown the importance of social media or technology in disseminating critical information to the masses. This is through media coverage, interviews taking place online and frequent updates from our leaders on different social media platforms and websites. Last week, the Covid-19 Infodemics Observatory, proved that South Africa ranks second in the world for reliable Covid-19 news. This is because South Africa has managed to criminalise the dissemination of misinformation and fake or misleading news, demonstrating that social media platforms can be used in a manner that will benefit all.
As young South Africans, we can even create and sign online petitions and participate in movements that affect our general population, with just a click. One example is the, #DataMustFall campaign, which caught the attention of many after the radio personality, Tbo Touch, initiated it. The campaign focused on the excessive data costs faced by many young South Africans who utilise it for learning, access to financial assistance and job hunting. The mobilisation led to a two-year investigation by the Competition Commission, which found that mobile data was too expensive for South African consumers. Ultimately, network service providers slashed their prices by 30% to 50%, effectively from April 1, 2020. From this, we learnt that technological platforms, like Twitter, afford young people platforms to mass mobilise on socioeconomic issues that matter to them.
Technology has made life easier for us, but it has also come with a cost. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) says that suicide is the fastest-growing cause of death among young South Africans aged 15 to 29. It attributes this to depression, which is sometimes increased by the use of social media. We have people expressing themselves in the belief that they have freedom of expression, whereas they are practising it wrongly. Freedom of expression is not without limits: one cannot express one's self freely with the intention of intimidating the next person. Cyberbullying incidents highlight how insensitive people can be behind their mobile devices. The dark side of social media in this context is undoing the progress of social media.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that an annually published Ipsos Global Advisor study, conducted in 28 countries, around bullying, shows that South Africa has the highest prevalence of cyberbullying. It was done to create awareness, especially for parents, on the issue of cyberbullying. The findings were supported by a study conducted by the First for Women insurance company on 4 000 participants. The study reinforced the magnitude of this problem, and, it emerged that 64% of the participants believed that their children might be at risk of this form of bullying. Cyberbullying also limits one's rights to freedom of physical movement, where an individual does not feel safe to travel anywhere because of threats received online or cyberstalking.
The negative side of technology should not sideline the excellent work done and progress it has brought into our lives. People need to understand the dangers of technology and remember that freedom is for all - and so is technology!
Written by Lerato Mahlangu, Research Intern, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA)