The recent global ransomware attack, dubbed WannaCry, prompted a flurry of concern and advice about the security of data online. Hackers are becoming ever more sophisticated, playing complex games of cat and mouse with security agencies and software developers alike. We should surely know by now that what we click online is not 100% safe. So be careful what links you follow or what you download - simple right? But what happens when someone shares a video or image of you without your consent?
A few weeks ago in South Africa, the internet was abuzz with the hashtag #Sesethu trending across platforms. A video of a 14-year old girl masturbating was widely shared online. Yet she doesn’t use any social media network. She had used a friend’s phone to film herself. The friend’s cousin found the recording and posted it online. Complete strangers now know the teenager’s name and face. She has been subjected to vicious comments about her body and ‘morals.’ Few showed any concern that watching and sharing the video, which is of a minor engaged in a sexual act, is illegal.
Facebook recently, announced a new tool that would prevent non-consensual intimate images from being shared on its main platform, Messenger and Instagram. While the tool itself is not perfect, a major win is that it uses photo matching technology to ensure that the picture cannot be posted again by other accounts and other participating platforms. This means users won’t have to report a photo each time it is uploaded in order to have it removed.
It’s somewhat good news for those of us who use social media regularly. But we should still be aware of the risks of being online and take precautions. Update your systems regularly, install virus protection, don't post anything you wouldn't want the world to see and never use social media when under the influence. Basic rules to safeguard our privacy in the digital world. But do we apply the same code of conduct in relation to others? Either maliciously or through thoughtlessness the answer is all too often, no. In particular, that is true when we think of those who are not online but whose image may well be. Digital rights aren’t unique to internet users. Even the privacy of those offline should be respected and safeguarded.
Groups like Media Monitoring Africa and HolaAfrica! reacted fast to the violation against Sesethu, using their public profiles to attempt to minimise the harm the child would face, by making clear that sharing sexually-explicit videos of children is a crime. They submitted take-down requests to ensure that the video was removed from websites where it had been uploaded and reported those sharing it.
At the same time, radio personality Criselda Sambeso Dudumashe visited the child’s home in an attempt to show that there is more to her than the video. Dudumashe posted photos of her visit, one of which clearly showed the child’s face. On Facebook that post received over 14,000 likes, was shared 6,387 times and received over 1,700 comments. A screen-grab of the post was tweeted and received over 1000 retweets. This means Sesethu’s identity was potentially exposed to even more people, putting her privacy at further risk. Dudumashe’s intentions may have been good but the consequences were devastating.
Though Sesethu’s situation is extreme, her situation is not totally unique. It shows that for those offline, privacy infringements can come from ordinary people, people like you and me. Watching and sharing such material makes us complicit and a part of the problem. Those who create this stuff wouldn’t if there wasn’t such a large audience for it.
Posting intimate photos and videos of people without their consent or even those unable to give their consent is a breach of their privacy and identity. It can also be very hurtful, such as when images of sick children are used as memes that ridicule them. Or in other perhaps well-meaning cases, where commenting and sharing such posts with the caption, ‘say amen’, indicates that you hope the sick child will be healed, or that you are acknowledging the ‘blessing’ of not being so afflicted. These images depict people in moments of vulnerability, often without any consent.
Some will argue that people should take greater personal responsibility and not do things that they would regret seeing posted online, especially in a time when more people have access to camera phones. But this assumes that it is the ‘right’ of anyone with a camera phone to just post things online without seeking consent. It also assumes it is the ‘right’ of anyone to download an image that’s online and use it as they please and that the power dynamics at play are equal, which the examples cited above show is not always the case.
This is particularly important because the internet never forgets, so the choices made with another’s likeness can affect them well into their future. Especially as facial recognition systems and other forms of bio-recognition are developed even more, potentially having a bigger impact on the individual’s digital footprint.
We already have some tools to report inappropriate behaviour online, and sites like Facebook are trying to improve the protection of their users, even if the methods still need more work. We should make use of them. But we should also think carefully before we post content about others – friends, family or complete strangers.
While it may seem like lot of work for what is often deemed ‘harmless’ fun, the people concerned are real people, whose dignity should not be sacrificed for a few laughs and the entertainment of others. We all have a role to play in making the internet a safer, more respectful place for everybody, including for those who are not even online.
Koketso Moeti has a long background in civic activism and has over the years worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. She is a 2017 Aspen New Voices Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti