South Africa’s Hostile Online Communication

Sometimes the world wide web seems fraught with dangerous undercurrents that might just draw the unsuspecting surfer down into its murky depths. South African websites are no exception, and sooner or later when frequenting these sites, one will encounter a specific communication pattern in the comments section.

In the early stages of these debates, there will be a statement that is, or at least could be interpreted as racist. Often a commenter’s name is being used as an indicator of the race, culture or group that person belongs to, and in the absence of other cues, this easily evokes someone’s prejudices.

   “@KayiZA, the way you responded to peters post exactly shows us that you r a racist.”
   BothaCT: “You are the racist here, for automatically assuming …”

Pretty soon the temperature rises and the discussion escalates into something far worse. Now we are at the stage of personal insults. What we read is not anymore adding any value to the topic in question, sometimes not even bearing a relation to it. And all too often it ends with threats of violence. Evoking all manners of atrocities seems to be a good enough tactic to regain the upper hand.

   “Samuel, I hope you have a daughter and she gets raped!”
   “They should be slaughtered like animals”.
   “Time to kill!”
   “I say stick a pole up his @ss and parade his lifeless sack of meat for his mates.”

This disgraceful verbal clash will in its classical form also be intermingled with wrongly comprehended faith. “Gods will” will be exploited or politicized:

   “The bastard must rot in jail, then burn in hell”
   “You’re a Darwinian ass, go fuck your gay lover!”

A last, cheerless characteristic of these kinds of disputes is the aggression against liberalism and integration. By way of example, in comments below an article that reported the death of a young woman from Cape Town, raped by two men and then murdered, several users stated that the “bitch” deserved to die like that, as she had decided to live in an area where black and white citizens live next to one another.
Reconciliatory comments, rarely raised from time to time, will be knocked down immediately.

Personally, I have to think of the middle ages reading these degraded, dead-hearted arguments. It is black against white, no Rainbow-Nation in sight and belies frustration about government, circumstances, injustice, the past and the present. It makes me wonder, who these people are, sitting in front of their screens, spewing virtual hate towards others they have never seen or known? What kind of country is this where there seems to be so much hatred around? Eventually I will stop reading and leave the house to do something else, disgusted and with a shadow hanging over me.

After stepping into the real world, it takes a few minutes to recognize that the situation outside is rather different. The sun is shining and people are smiling. My everyday life in South Africa is being characterized by positive interactions and friendly, warm-hearted people. I see and meet them every day. And this even though I belong to a small percentage of advantaged people from the first world. Many here could easily dislike me for what they perceive I stand for.

Instead, people of all backgrounds have welcomed me as a foreigner in their country.
I know coloured, black and white community workers, teachers, artists, engineers and students who spend their free time and some of them a lot of effort to help uplift people of poor communities. I encounter and observe a great deal of genuine kindness in this country and have seen a significant amount of huggings between people of different races. Not in an awkward, fake way, as if it was a big deal, but genuine.

These experiences just don’t fit to the discussions that I have read online.

And yes, I can hear the critic’s voice already… Therefore I state, I don’t want to deny that there are serious problems in South Africa. We are not in the Smurf’s fairyland. There is a lot of crime and huge social challenges. But this is besides my point.
All this made me think, and raises the question: why do people insult each other so harshly when they are online?

The psychological side of it: Inappropriate behavior on the Internet is not a new phenomenon

It was already in the 1980’s when psychologists found that email communication is more hostile than face-to-face conversations (Sproull and Kiesler, 1986). By now we know that the so-called computer mediated communication (“CMC”), which includes chats and forums, generally differs from direct conversations.

Under normal, real-life conditions, verbal interaction is governed by a multitude of social norms and rules. People are, for the most part, kind and considerate towards each other, heated conflict is unusual and hateful verbal abuse is very rare. Online, different rules apply. Psychologists call the inappropriate behavior described above “flaming” or “disinhibited behaviour”. It has been shown that flaming occurs four times as often in CMC than in face-to-face situations (Dyer, Green, Pitts & Millward, 1995). Experimental results prove that this applies to everyone, which means it is not only a certain type of “bad people” that goes nuts on the web (Atkinson, 2002).

One of the obvious reasons for this is the reduction in accountability. In real-life, the fear of punishment by society or the counterpart we’re facing, often holds us back. Contrary to this, we don’t have to personally account for our online postings.
Nevertheless, anonymity isn’t an adequate explanation for the described effects.

Another reason lies in the communication medium itself. The narrow bandwidth of CMC leads to depersonalization through reduced “social presence”. We lack social cues and have only a limited amount of information available. Misunderstandings, disagreements and frustration follow.

And lastly, disinhibited behavior online can be better understood by means of a theory already developed in the 1970’s (“Social Norm Theory”, Turner, 1974). This theory states that people tend to look at the behavior of others for guidance as to what is appropriate when they are in unfamiliar or socially ambiguous situations (such as entering an online forum). We then tend to follow behaviour that stands out in some way, like someone being aggressive. In this way anti-social behaviour can become the norm, even if it is only one deviant crossing the line.

The Social Norm Theory also explains how inappropriate behavior on the Internet can be reinforced. Look for anything on the web, and you will find plenty of advocates on countless websites who will confirm your beliefs. Not only does the web give us access to desired information and content, it also implies that our (potentially deviant) opinion or behaviour is “normal” or “right”. This may allow someone to justify to himself what (s)he would previously have not found appropriate (“many people agree with me”).

So what?

Well, as a cynic one could conclude that the kind of online disputes one finds on South Africa’s websites, do actually reflect back onto South African citizens. And just because you don’t hear racist comments by people on the street, it doesn’t mean that they are not racists.

It might also be relieving to know that most of the users showing disrespectful behavior online will be more reasonable when seeing other people in person. One could even say, it might be helpful to let off some steam from time to time in a place where it is safe to do so.

And still, I believe, the way we communicate with each other online impacts a society’s psyche and becomes increasingly important the more the web becomes entwined into our lives and CMC replaces real-life meetings. Especially when there are big social problems in a country, it is crucial to be concerned about the kind of info and communication its citizens are confronted with.

It could therefore be helpful to encourage and reward people to sign up on websites with a profile that is more real, for example with a photo or an account that is connected to a social network. In accordance to the Social Norm Theory it might be desirable to change the norms of websites that allow comments. Providing buttons to report abusive comments should be a standard for all websites and would probably be more useful than up- or downvote buttons which often promote fighting between opposing parties.

Furthermore, we can all watch our online behaviour and ask ourselves whether we would actually stand up for our entries with our real names. And when we are bothered by the comments of others, why not consider posting a respectful counterargument or positive thought instead of surfing away? It could help everybody who is engaged in these discussions, as well as future readers and the ungracious users in question, to recognize that disrespectful behaviour is not the norm.


The comments in this blog are taken from a major South African news website. 


Atkinson, Q. (2002) Disinhibition on the Internet: Implications and Intervention. Department of Psychology, University of Auckland.

Dyer, Green, Pitts & Millward (1995). What’s the flaming problem? CMC: deindividuating or disinhibiting? In M.A.R. Kirby, A.J. Dix, and J.E. Finlay (Eds.), People and Computers X. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Postmes, T., Spears, R. & Lea, M. (2000) The Formation of Group Norms in Computer-Mediated Communication. Human Communication Research, 26(3), 341-72.

Sproull, L., & Kiesler, S. (1986) Reducing social context cues: Electronic mail in organizational communication. Management Science, 32, 1492-1512.

Turner, R. H. (1974) Collective Behaviour in R.E.L. Farris (ed.), Handbook of modern sociology (pp. 382-425). Chicago, IL: Rand-McNally.

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