As Online Hate Speech Hits Africa, Social Media Companies Must Act

* Online hate speech targets Zimbabweans in South Africa

* Widespread digital abuse also seen in Ghana and Kenya

* Culturally sensitive content moderation key, activists say

By Kim Harrisberg and Nita Bhalla

JOHANNESBURG/NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Social media was once a source of light entertainment for Nora, a 47-year-old Zimbabwean domestic worker living in South Africa. But lately it has become a source of fear.

As she scrolls through her Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp pages, she finds posts accusing Zimbabweans of everything from crime and drug networks to corruption – the kind of xenophobic hate speech she says could fuel violent attacks on migrants.

“People write that we should go home, that this is not our country, that we bring crime…the messages have spread so fast,” said Nora, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his identity.

“These messages can lead to violence,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she ironed clothes at her employer’s home in Johannesburg.

Nora is among approximately 180,000 Zimbabweans living in South Africa with Zimbabwean Extension Permits (ZEPs) due to expire at the end of the year, after the government said last year they would no longer be renewed.

Previous permits were first deployed in 2009 to help regularize the status of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants who had fled economic and political turmoil in Zimbabwe, giving them the right to live, work and study in a wealthier South Africa.

Termination of permits is legally challenged by advocacy groupswho say there was no public consultation and not enough notification.

Anger towards foreigners – at a time of economic downturn and rising unemployment – is being stoked by online campaigns like #PutSouthAfricansFirst and #ZimbabweansMustFall, social media experts say, calling on platforms to do more to monitor and moderate the hate speech.

“These digital spaces act as red flags whenever a xenophobic event is about to happen…you can feel the tone,” said Vincent Chenzi, senior lecturer at the Department of Peace, Security and Society of the University of Zimbabwe.

“There is very little moderation as these stories are shared in echo chambers, often in vernacular languages, so they go unnoticed,” said Chenzi, who has been researching hate speech online since 2016.

Twitter said its trained teams review and respond to reports around the clock in multiple languages, adding that 50% of abusive content is “proactively escalated for human review, rather than relying on reports from people using Twitter. “.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and WhatsApp, said in response to a request for comment that it would soon announce an update to its regular threat reporting.


Social media platforms are coming under increasing pressure for failing to curb online hate speech which activists say has led to violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar and ethnic minorities in Ethiopia.

Xenophobic violence in South Africa has largely been directed against Malawian, Zimbabwean, Nigerian and Mozambican migrants and refugees in the country since 1994, according to rights groups.

Migrant rights groups say foreigners are often the scapegoats for economic woes rooted in deep structural problems and the failure of successive South African governments to convert post-apartheid freedoms into widespread prosperity.

But as social media grows in popularity, online spaces can signal that physical attacks may be on the rise, and sometimes be used to incite them, Chenzi said.

“Our infrastructure has been devastated by Zimbabweans, and now our health system is failing because of this alien,” it read. a tweet from the end of July.

“South Africans must rise up and defend their homeland against these rogues from Zimbabwe,” read another.

Protests and street patrols – such as those carried out by the recent Operation Dudula, which means “to push back” in the isiZulu language – also accuse foreigners of crimes and other problems.

Last month, Elvis Nyathi, a Zimbabwean who lived in the Johannesburg township of Diepsloot, died after being assaulted and set on fire, prompting human rights groups to demand the enactment of a long-delayed hate speech bill drafted in 2016.

“The brutal murder of Elvis occurred after several inflammatory statements aimed at non-citizens, by representatives of political parties and vigilante groups,” said the University’s Center for Human Rights. of Pretoria in a statement.


Online disinformation and hate speech are also rampant in other parts of the continent, from Kenya to Ethiopia to Ghana.

Ahead of the hotly contested August 9 elections in Kenya, researchers found platforms such as TikTok, Facebook and Twitter are inundated with harmful content, including incitement to violence against ethnic communities.

Last week, Kenya’s ethnic cohesion watchdog said it had given Facebook seven days to tackle election-related hate speech and incitement or it would be suspended.

But the two interior ministers Fred Matiang’i and Minister of Technology Joe Mucheru rejected the ultimatum.

“We are working in a democratic setup and we will not interfere with social media,” Matiang’i said in a speech on Saturday.

Meanwhile, in Ghana, rights activists say they have seen an upsurge in hate speech against LGBTQ+ people, after a law Project criminalizing being gay, bisexual or transgender was introduced in parliament last year.

Activists say the bill has sparked homophobic sentiment both offline and online, with an increase in cases of discrimination, harassment and physical attacks against LGBT+ people.

“Now even the digital space is not a welcoming place for the LGBT+ community,” said Danny Bediako, founder of Rightify Ghana, a human rights organization.


Digital rights activists have said efforts by tech platforms to tackle harmful content, especially in developing countries, are woefully insufficient.

Moderation processes fail to understand specific cultural and societal contexts and lack of knowledge of local languages ​​and dialects, allowing problematic content to spread quickly and be amplified with potentially serious consequences.

Online platforms should monitor any upsurge in hate speech and notify the government, without silencing dissent or healthy debate, Chenzi said.

In Johannesburg, Nora fears online hate speech could lead to further divisions, hampering any efforts to tackle discrimination and abuse.

“People need to stop yelling and insulting online; we need to have conversations in real life, to understand who we really are.”

Originally posted on:

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg and Nita Bhalla; Editing by Helen Popper.

About Mitchel McMillan

Check Also

Durban cyclists tackle a race to raise money for St Theresa’s Children’s Home

A GROUP of cyclists from around Durban have united to raise funds for St Theresa’s …