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Social media: Penalise the conduct, not the tool

11 Aug, 2016 - 00:08 0 Views
Social media: Penalise the conduct, not the tool To simply say we are going to punish “social media abusers” without speaking to the specific conduct one wishes to curb is to obsess about a mere tool rather than address the issue of specific criminality or conduct that the law seeks to proscribe

The Herald

To simply say we are going to punish “social media abusers” without speaking to the specific conduct one wishes to curb is to obsess about a mere tool rather than address the issue of specific criminality or conduct that the law seeks to proscribe

To simply say we are going to punish “social media abusers” without speaking to the specific conduct one wishes to curb is to obsess about a mere tool rather than address the issue of specific criminality or conduct that the law seeks to proscribe

THERE is a song by Hosiah Chipanga whose title I cannot recall but which has the following lyrics “inga doro rakanaka haridhake asingamwe, chero jeri rakanaka, hariziro rinokusunga, kana bhawa rakanaka, kumba kwenyu harisvike, munhu chete pasi pano ndiye ega akaipa”. These lyrics perfectly capture a Latin dictum that goes “abusus non tollit usum”, which means wrong use does not preclude proper use or in this case, abuse of social media does not take away good use. In the context of this week’s instalment, this roundabout intro is my way of responding to the provisions contained in the draft Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill, which will empower police to intercept private communications and to search and seize electronic gadgets used for criminal activities.

It is my considered view that abuse of social media is not an argument against proper use and so in crafting laws that seek to proscribe social media use – the powers that be must bear in mind that their brief is to penalise unlawful conduct as stated in our existing criminal laws but to not seek to penalise the tool by which any unlawful conduct is carried out.

We do not see police – in the name of preventing crime – raiding homes to search for and seize knives or placing shoppers under surveillance for buying sharp objects that could be used to maim and murder. The use of knives is not legislated because knives are mere tools – what is legislated is the conduct of people who may be in possession of a knife or any other sharp object.

If the law states that stabbing or killing someone is illegal, it is not necessary for the law to start concerning itself with the manner of tools or specificities of how such a crime might come to be committed – the point is already made: thou shalt not stab and thou shalt not kill.

Whether you use a knife, a gun, a car or your bare knuckles to break that law – what will be punished and what is punishable is the conduct not the tool. My fear, deriving from the many conflicting pronouncements from Government officials and police authorities, is that there seems to be a preoccupation with how to penalise a tool (social media) when what should be penalised is conduct in accordance with the existing laws of the land.

To simply say we are going to punish “social media abusers” or we are going to penalise “social media abuse” without speaking to the specific conduct one wishes to curb is to obsess about a mere tool rather than address the issue of specific criminality or conduct that law seeks to proscribe.

Harping on and on about “social media abuse” is to fall easily into the fallacy of thinking a tool is the problem when what you want to address is a specific issue of conduct. If we want to craft laws against any number of abuses or if we have crafted laws against forms of abuse then we must simply be addressing the issue of abuse – regardless of the tool or platform used.

In other words, creating laws just especially for social media is to reify a tool and imply that there is a causal link between the tool and whatever harmful results we seek to avoid – without considering the agency and conduct of those wielding this tool.

Those who love social media are best placed to critique it

“Abusus non tollit usum” – abuse does not take away use or rather, abuse is not a proper argument against proper use. One should not use the fact that social media, as a tool, has been or can be harnessed towards achieving harmful results to wholly condemn it; because misuse of a thing has never been an adequate basis to do away with it. More importantly, and more relevant to my next point, is that those who do not understand a thing are least qualified to fairly weigh its worth and to give it informed critique – much less craft a law based on it.

I raised a point similar to this in a radio discussion with the Minister of Information Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services, Honourable Supa Mandiwanzira when the issue of legislating social media came up and he had indicated that the MPs (as elected representatives of the people) would be entrusted with drafting legislation around “social media abuse”.

In my view, and with utmost respect, very few of our MPs are qualified to give authoritative assessment of social media by virtue of their aversion to these platforms evidenced by their limited use and almost non-existent presence on the same. It does not bode well for us netizens to have the fate of our enjoyment of social media lie in the hands of men and women who largely have shown disinterest in, aversion to and even hostility towards new communication technologies – and are seemingly technological laggards of the highest order.

As someone who has had the opportunity to conduct trainings for some of our parliamentarians I am well aware of the dearth in digital knowledge and particularly social media skills that plagues some honourable members of the august House. I do not make this revelation to be condescending or supercilious in any way but to make the point that the decision to legislate social media should involve a robust and wide-ranging consultative process to gather the views of the most invested stakeholders who live and thrive online.

Netizens deserve to have their say and to also contribute to the process that is already underway because capturing their input will also aid in isolating the kind of conduct that makes social media spaces toxic and unsafe for users who fall victim to violations such as cyber bullying and harassment, trolling and malicious impersonation, posting and distribution of revenge porn – all of which have largely gone unpunished because victims have had no legal recourse.

I said to the ICT Minister then, and am happy to reiterate, that in order for the MPs to thoroughly represent the views of netizens with regards to legislating social media conduct, they would have to go back to their constituencies and seek guidance because a good number of them would be clueless.

But why waste time and resources trying to get MPs to physically go into constituencies to harvest views on social media legislation when the same can be done by way of crowdsourcing online? Users of social media deserve to be involved, consulted and to be well represented in this process otherwise it becomes a case of penalising a tool in order to address perceived misconduct.

CrowdSourcing: Can the Netizens be heard?

I have already mentioned my reservations with regards entrusting the crafting of social media Bill to our MPs, whom I believe are mostly ill equipped to critique the new communication technologies they would be expected to craft laws around.

I do not make this point to mystify social media or any other new communication technology but I do want stress that learning curves differ and people adopt technology at varying paces. It may not be a reasonable expectation to insist that our MPs familiarise themselves – virtually overnight – with the various and finer workings of social media platforms in order to be better informed as they seek to craft laws around social media.

However what is possible and what can be done instantaneously is to begin a process of crowdsourcing for views via social media in order to ensure that netizens are consulted and involved in this anxiety-instilling process. I say “anxiety-instilling” because it is a process that is being led by Government and driven by imperatives that have not been clearly communicated to the stakeholders who use social media tools.

It is no different to the level of anxiety that would be triggered if Government officials were to start issuing statements condemning the use of knives on the basis that stabbings have increased – would we then remedy the situation through vague warnings, opaque and ominous statements or indeed direct threats to target those who might have an affinity for knives?

I use the knife as an analogy because in many ways social media is like a knife – it can cause harm or it can promote good – the deciding factor is the conduct and motive of the one wielding it. There is a need, in my view, to reframe the narrative around social media and stop speaking of it as if it were the bogeyman that small kids are taught to fear.

This is a very unhelpful and unprogressive framing of social media which stems from ignorance because I would be hard pressed to believe that someone who understands social media would conclude that instances wherein it is used for harm preclude and far outweigh instances where it is used for progress.

I am reminded of an online petition process that the UK parliament uses whereby government petitions which reach over 100 000 signatures must be considered for debate in parliament. The most signed such petition, signed by over 4 million people, was a petition calling for a second referendum on European Union membership following the Brexit vote.

However, in an official reply, the UK government declined to have the issue put to a debate saying 33 million people had had their say and the decision must be respected. This is not to say that the Zimbabwean Parliament must ape the UK one – but my point is to illustrate how social media can provide platforms for engagement, consultation and crowdsourcing.

There is no need to thumbsuck when it comes to weighing how many people support or challenge an issue when there is a significant number of the population that can be easily accessed online. Several of our ministries have Facebook pages that are just dormant, created I suppose to satisfy the requirements of ministerial website templates that came with social media plug-ins. I hope that the ICT Minister will consider crowdsourcing views by way of structured and expertly moderated Twitterviews (interviews on Twitter); and by way of a dedicated hashtag that crosses over the varying social media platforms and digital communities to seek out views of netizens.

The issue is about specific unpalatable conduct – and this must be separated from the tool, which is social media. Conflating the two is to ignore the sage words of Hosiah Chipanga “chinhu chese pasi pano chakanaka, munhu chete pasi pano ndiye ega akaipa” or something to that effect. It is my wager that people who love social media and desire to use it in positive, constructive and progressive ways do and can appreciate the need for legislative intervention – but that intervention must isolate and categorically address unlawful conduct not social media itself.


Delta is Head of Digital at Zimpapers. Follow her on Twitter @deltandou.

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