The row over a racist comment made on Twitter by SA model Jessica Leandra dos Santos last week has received exposure overseas, and another instance of hate speech, in Cape Town, has highlighted the proliferation of the problem on social networking forums.
Dos Santos, 20, caused controversy after using the k-word on Twitter. Although her tweet was later removed and she apologised, it sparked outrage worldwide as an example of intolerance on social networks.
A representative of law firm Webber Wentzel said in a recent interview that individuals could be charged with hate speech and jailed for posting racist or offensive comments on social networking sites. In SA, hate speech is not protected under free speech and expression laws.
In the past week, a Facebook rant by Ken Sinclair, a student at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, also prompted uproar as social media users encouraged others to “take a stance against open racism and hate speech on social networks”.
Sinclair posted that he had “seriously had enough of the blacks in this country”, that “they… are ruining our university and our country”, and many more derogatory statements.
It is not clear if Dos Santos and Sinclair will face legal consequences for their statements, while instances like theirs have got people tweeting, posting and commenting about SA as a nation of “racists behind computers”.
Facebook has a list of rights and responsibilities for users, but failure to comply only results in the user’s account being closed. Users may not post content that is hateful or threatening or “use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory”. But this doesn’t seem to have stopped anyone.
Racism on social media sites is not unique to SA. A Canadian fan of the Hunger Games recently set up a blog entitled “Hunger Games Tweets” exposing offensive tweets commenting on the ethnicities of the characters.
And in the US this week fans unleashed racial comments online after a black playerscored the winning goal in a professional hockey game.
On April 18, UCT students and staff met to discuss whether the university was racist. It was a means for “students and staff to express even the most contentious of opinions without fear of ‘victimisation’,” according to the UCT website.
The conversation highlighted a range of experiences and opinions – pointing to the fact that the debate is expected to continue.