The monsters in the machine

My laptop is suffering from a case of “pop-ups ads”, causing the most random things to appear on my screen.

Often what appears are adverts to earn money in something that smells very much like a Ponzi scheme, but one day what came up was a cartoon of a man ripping the underwear off a clearly terrified woman. Above the cartoon was a button inviting you to “begin game”.

I was seeing an advert for a online rape game. This one was called Sex Gangsters, which invited the player to travel the world “conquering women”. Someone had actually constructed reams of code and developed a multilevel, multiplayer game about sexually assaulting women.

This is but one of the many ways in which the digital realm is conceptually (and physically) unsafe for women.

The internet is both a blessing and a curse. Although it has allowed women to come together and have conversations and form a community, it has also allowed the scum of the earth to fester in its darkest corners. From facilitating human trafficking to child porn and online harassment and bullying, cyber violence is increasingly becoming a social problem.

It is the kind of place where women can be threatened with rape for expressing views on everything from politics to sex and even economics; where an actress can be called “a smelly pussy” because she expressed her views about a sporting fixture; where those who have extremely problematic ideas about women have been able not only to congregate but also to attack while hiding behind avatars and screen names.

Economic analysts say information technology spending in Africa will hit about $150-billion, with most being spent in Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. It is also predicted that the cellphone market will break the $5-billion mark by 2018.

We need to think very carefully about what dangers this poses.

Jan Moolman, the women’s rights programme project co-ordinator of the Association for Progressive Communications of South Africa, said “technology-related violence is on the increase” and cellphones are emerging as the most common tool for this.

Women’s bodies have become trending topics in the social media, often with pictures they have sent to lovers as an intimate gift being splashed maliciously on the internet. One example involved a law student, Pulane Lenkoe, whose naked body ended up on Twitter for three days after a picture of her was leaked. Even well-known people were said to be her “fans”.

This is a case of a woman being stripped of her dignity and the ownership of her body. The excuse that she should not have sent it is not a sufficient reason for this. This is an act of violence because the trauma suffered is extensive.

Although there is little in the way of understanding about how to deal with these cases, a social media law specialist, Emma Sadleir, said: “Lenkoe could sue her ex for infringement of privacy, lay a charge of crimen injuria, or even get a protection order under the Protection from Harassment Act.”

The situation is so bad that even Twitter’s chief executive officer at the time, Dick Costolo, conceded that the microblogging site “sucked” at dealing with abuse and trolls. Last year, leaked emails revealed that he was “frankly ashamed” of Twitter’s inability to deal with the matter.

What is important to note is that the violence is not restricted to online. It is not simply a case of logging off and ignoring the mental and social decay of the digital space. The serious crime analysis section of the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency said the number of rape allegations linked to online dating sites has increased by 450% in five years – from 33 in 2009 to 184 in 2014.

Rape is generally underreported and the number could be much higher, the agency told the UK’s Independent newspaper.

The agency’s report, Emerging New Threat in Online Dating, said the rise appeared to be the result of the increased popularity of online dating combined with “the behaviours and expectations fostered by an online environment”.

With South Africa experiencing a rise in dating apps such as Tinder and online dating sites, this is potentially a huge problem.

All the rhetoric and initiatives dealing with violence against women need to be included in this realm because, somewhere out there, there is someone trying to create another multiplayer rape game.

Kagure Mugo is the cofounder and curator of the HOLAAfrica! blog