An increasing number of South Africans spend time on the internet, with the average user spending an estimated daily time of nine hours and 22 minutes on the internet, according to statistics in the #Digital2020 report by We Are Social. With such heavy internet use, social media has become an integral part of the lives of millions of South Africans. According to the report, South Africa had 22 million social media users in January 2020. This was 3.5 million more users compared to the previous year. The report estimates that the most popular age groups using social media are those between 18-24 years, and 25-34 years old. The average user is reported to have eight social media accounts and spends about 3 hours a day using social media.
As social media is now a popular platform for communication and self-expression among South Africans, it is essential to remember that not all opinions or content are appropriate for sharing. While social media allows individuals to exercise their freedom of expression, some content and opinions expressed may come with negative consequences, such as public condemnation and legal proceedings. These posts are released into and remain in the public domain and may affect more people than just the individual who posted the content.
“With such heavy internet use, social media has become an integral part of the lives of millions of South Africans.“
Past social media activity sometimes cannot be erased and can also harm individuals in the future. Last month, Bianca Schoombee, a Miss South Africa hopeful, had to withdraw prematurely from the Miss South Africa competition due to public outrage over tweets that she posted in 2013 when she was 14 years old. The tweets, containing body shaming and racist comments, resurfaced on social media, prompting outraged South Africans to take to Twitter with the hashtag #BiancaMustFall. Schoombee then apologised for her comments, dropped out of the Miss South Africa competition, and her model agency, SYNC Models, cancelled her contract despite initially defending her in a public statement. The uproar caught the attention of the Miss South Africa organisation, which then released a statement stating that finalists could not be involved in any “unsavoury or unethical incidents or conduct” that would bring the organisation into disrepute.
Social media controversies often remind us to be responsible on social media, but it may be easier than we think for people to forget about posting responsibly.
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Laws regulating social media use
South African laws serve as a useful guide for social media use. In 2018, the National Assembly passed an updated Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill. In chapter 3 of the new Bill, acts such as sharing people’s personal details without their consent for malicious reasons and sharing intimate images of other people are criminalised. One should never share intimate and sexually explicit photos or videos without the consent of the individual featured, as it is a criminal offence and one which is punishable by jail time or by substantial fines. The Bill also criminalises data messages that incite self-harm or harm against other people and damage to property.
Know the difference between opinions and hate speech
Hate speech on social media is also a quick route to legal trouble. Offensive or harmful statements, including sexist, racist or homophobic comments, are grounds for legal prosecution. South Africa is no stranger to social media controversy and public outrage created due to racist posts. Adam Catzavelos and Penny Sparro, for example, created public outrage after their racially charged posts surfaced on social media. Sparro was ordered to pay a fine of R150 000, and Catzavelos is currently facing prosecution.
“South African laws serve as a useful guide for social media use.“
Seemingly harmless comments on social media, such as complaints about the workplace may also invite negative consequence. According to Law For All’s guide on content to avoid posting on social media, individuals should steer clear from posting negative comments about colleagues or the workplace that could damage their reputation, as this may ultimately result in a defamation lawsuit. As social media allows posts to be shared and possibly stored as evidence, it is important to ask oneself whether the content may be harmful or offensive to anyone before posting.
Social media affects employment prospects
Social media also affects employment prospects more than we think. According to the South Africa HR Recruitment Survey 2019/2020, 77% of employers used social media to recruit candidates. In addition, iFacts, an employee screening and vetting services provider in South Africa, reported in 2017 that more employers realise that reviewing CVs and contacting references is no longer sufficient to learn about job candidates. That said employers are taking to social media to scrutinise the desirability of candidates based on their social media profiles. According to the organisation, 61% of employers in 2017 rejected applicants due to negative content on social media. The negative content included inappropriate photos, use of drugs, discriminatory comments, and sharing of confidential employer information.
The culmination of past and present social media activity creates a digital footprint that will influence reputation and perceived behaviour in the personal and professional sphere of life. Freedom of speech is a right but should also be considered a responsibility.
Illustration: Marshall Potgieter