What?!” Paul has been absent-mindedly scrolling on his laptop for a while, but now he has found something that really removes him from our jovial meeting. “Two people were shot dead..! In a res room..! Here..!”
This is how I heard the tragic story of 21-year-old Amanda Tweyi, killed in a Rhodes University residence by Nkosinathi Nqabisa; a man believed to have been her boyfriend. I heard it five hours after it happened, in a coffee shop, from behind my friend’s laptop (it could easily have been a cellphone, to make my point more dramatic).
As we all know by now, the internet allows us to publish breaking news faster than ever before. And for any questions left unanswered, there are real-time updates. And Google. And for the real unanswered questions, there are rumours and public speculation, which have never been more shareable – or more shameless.
In this particular case, the rumours are that Tweyi was unfaithful to Nqabisa with the man in whose residence room she was found dead. The public speculation is that she brought her death upon herself by cheating on her possessive boyfriend. Case in point:
As Luke McKinney of Cracked.com explains: “interacting with a monitor and keyboard means people feel less empathy. They also don't bother pretending to be nice, which is a pity, because ‘pretending to be nice’ is pretty much what made the nonwarring part of human history possible.”
Whilst McKinney’s comments are amusingly scathing, they are painfully true. Online, it is easy to ignore the fact that the avatars we are interacting with – or, in this case, the news sensations we are talking about – are real people with lives and emotions. When alone in the room with just a computer for company, it is easy to forget that anything we say online could be seen by thousands of unique and sensitive people.
And this is to say nothing of comment pages on news websites, where people are not obligated to give their real identities, and face no personal accountability for anything they say. Another case in point:
This social phenomenon is particularly damaging when conjoined with oppressive ideas, as it often is. In this case, the idea that when a woman is emotionally or physically abused, it is somehow her fault.
“As females, we are born into a world that expects us to be careful already”, says Khanyisa Nomoyi, president of the Gender Action Project at Rhodes University. “To be in an abusive relationship is to be in a relationship with someone who intensifies how careful a woman feels she needs to be. It puts a huge barrier around her: how she sees herself and how she behaves.”
For abuse victims in South Africa, comments reiterating that they were not careful enough are now trending online.
Whilst the internet provides platforms (like blogs and social media feeds) for a chorus of feminist voices dissenting these messages, the imporsonal and anonymous nature of social networks functions as a comfortable shadow for scornful scoffers who need not show their faces to tighten the stranglehold of blame placed on victims of abuse.