It started from a simple response to a comment on her wall. It struck a nerve, and in a minute, the insults had morphed into how ugly her daughter was, why she was a single mother and a list of the men she had slept with. If I had not interacted with the media this particular way—as a consumer first, and in a scholarly way as a graduate of communication and now a licensed journalist—my jaws would be dropping at how vicious the social media is. Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) is an army that can bring you to your knees. My colleagues have reported on people who have been driven to the brink of depression by the social media and the cyber bullying therein .Others have committed suicide for bullying. Early this week, I was talking to my broadcast colleague Trevor Ombija, how was bearing the brunt of cyber bullying that was initially meant for me . He told me that is not the first time and I believed him because I have been attacked several times on stories I have written. Journalism, especially in this age where it is moving to the digital space, is a public job and even for me who already knows cyber bullying is an occupational hazard, it still gets to me. I would not cry because of cyber bullying but it certainly would spoil my day. However, that does not mean I belittle the potentially fatal consequences of the social media.
What to do?
Do we run from the social media to protect ourselves? That could be an option. I am not going to get into the debate whether being on twitter adds any value to your life or not, even as a professional .I have sold pieces from my clothesline online; I met the couple who funded my first music album on Facebook, and they are people I value to date; I have had more than 10 journalism fellowships—some very prestigious— through the social media. Before we get into tips to use this space safely, indulge me here on some psychology that I learnt from the few days I was in a classroom as a teacher.
Psychology of social media users in Kenya
A few studies have gone into the use of social media in Kenya. That is expected, given the way in which social media fueled the Arab springs. Activist Boniface Mwangi has rallied Kenyans behind #Mpigs campaigns. Hashtags have taken a diplomatic twist. Whose ribs cracked in #someonetellNigerians? In her book, Kenya@50: Trends, Identities and the Politics of Belonging (AWESOME BOOK),Joyce Nyairo talks about the construction of identity on the social media. An account like @mkenyahalisi for instance, shows someone who is patriotic. @daktari1 shows you the profession is a doctor. Then there is the psychology of how people act out these identities.
You see, we are either introverted or extroverted. If you are too introverted, your world surrounds you, and you are unaware of what goes on in the world. Too extroverted an individual would live a life devoid of introspection, vain and shallow. A healthy human being needs a balance of the two and Kenyans have failed to do so. To this failure, add the reality that people are usually scared to show who they really are.
I have profiled people I know offline and online and I have seen that on social media, Kenyans use several strategies to bring this balance. They either are in “reaction formation”, where they overdevelop one aspect of themselves. Have you seen a man on twitter who knows everything about maternal health? Even when a practicing gynecologist disagrees with him, the man will quote books and examples from Cambodia to win an argument about Kenya? Tell you what, they are just suppressing the doubt in their head. Those people who are exaggeratedly concerned about women not standing by their financially unstable husbands, have a hidden guilt of their desire to leave their broke men for a richer one.
Then there is displacement. This is a strategy of folk who cannot express their whole gamut of emotions. It would be socially unacceptable or a weakness. So they take something less negative and bearable. Displacement could be in the form of projection where a vain person always accuses Verah Sidica and her lot of seeking fame and that very vain trait; or scapegoating where these prudish people are perpetually condemning people for the focus on sex in relationships when they are horrified by their own thoughts on sexual proclivities. They cannot tell a man or woman “I am sexually attracted to you” or “I want to experience sexual intimacy” because they are ashamed.
So these kinds of strategies produce several characters. Like the fellow who never disagrees with anyone. S/he types “following” or “amen” or just retweets something. So they become an anonymity even on subjects where their experience would help. Cowards! The crank, always chaperoning about stuff s/he cannot control in his/her own life. These are the folk who would write a whole 300-word post starting with “dear young woman who sleeps with married men” …when they have been sleeping with and taken care of by a married man. Their walls are full of bible verses in support of marital purity when their lives are far from that ideal. So they attack people who live like they do because they have not owned the manner in which they live their lives. Three, the cynic who is always posting how “men are dogs”/ “women are bitches” don’t trust them. They have clichéd responses to dilemmas like “love yourself enough to take the high road”. These are folks antagonized by what did not go as they planned in life …like they have been in a marriage they have been abused and unsatisfied in but they have not gathered the courage to either deal with the issues or walk out of.
There could be a million other strategies out there, and pseudo personas that people create to bringing this balance. These personalities are what you interact with when you read those vitriolic posted to you in a hashtag.
SO HOW DO WE USE THE SOCIAL MEDIA
- Ask “How is this important to the rest of the world?”
Someone said, “Download your private life to the internet and people will upload their opinions”. What is private or not? What should I share with the world or hold on to? This is a difficult judgment to make. I have always wondered, why should I, a stranger, know why you fought with your spouse? I have made this mistake too and I am sharing it as a lesson. Here is a rule of thumb. Do not upload stuff on the internet when you are emotionally charged—too angry or too happy. I am a bomb when I am angry but I channel that to a particular person, usually who triggered that anger. When you are angry and broadcast on Facebook, it is an emotion that is expressed in a vacuum wasted and not harnessed to get you out of that emotional roller coaster. After all of it, you still have the emptiness. You could share a personal experience if you have decided that the misfortune you went through should act as a lesson to women in say, gender violence.
Here is a trick. You could post anything nasty on Facebook about all the angry things you want to say, your sexual proclivities…. but put the privacy to what only YOU can see. You would read it three days later after the anger has dissipated and should you put it out there, you would be ready for the consequences.
2. Hiding in plain sight
I admire my colleague Larry Madowo. He is a heavy user of the social media, from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, but only on matters pertaining his work! We do not know who Larry is dating or who he goes out with. This is a skill you should practice. You can be in our faces all the time, but people can try as much as they can to get personal private stuff that they can use against you, and not find any.
3. Understand the personalities
I have just belaboured about those personas on social media. There is a person who does not suffer fools, then there is an overly aggressive one who will find something mean to say about a picture of puppy.
4. Do not engage or call people out certain personalities
In September 2015, someone I trusted made a post on his wall and tagged all my friends from campus mocking me for being an orphan and other tragic things that happened to me offline that I had never even shared even to my close friends. I was away abroad on an assignment, unable to roam and relying on hotel Wi-Fi. After I had gotten over my shock, sent him texts angry as his post, I went to his post and typed “I am sorry”. The post was brought down immediately. Here is a bullet point you need to take home. These personas make life “livable” for these folk. So when you call them out, in public, tear these defences and leave them exposed, what next? Will you put them together again? Will you give them some other persona to live on? Believe me when I say, with your face on your account, a grudge online can be extended offline where people would loo for you to “put you in your place for putting you in their place”.
You could stand up to internet bullies. Wambui Kamiru, wife of Safaricom CEO stood up to bullies with humour. Hers was directed to no one in particular. Here is an interesting scenario. You could be bullied privately by someone who has a personal grudge at you. Something offline taking a life online. I have woken up to inboxes of insults from a person. They are angry at you, but they would not have the got to confront you in person or in public. So s/he comes to your inbox or post in anonymity to Facebook groups so that the rest of equally vain people can attack you on his or her behalf. In this case, stand up to this person but when you notice that even what you say is not being taken to consideration in response, shut the fuck up. Bullies, driven by their own weaknesses, thrive on you shrinking. Do not block them, but do not engage either. It is a psychological battle.
5. Take some time off
Stay off social media for some time. You could deactivate your account or just not visit the accounts at all. Go through your posts in the past and delete some that you feel are not building your professional or business portfolio.