The danger of a single (internet) story

Internet.org has just celebrated its first birthday. In late August 2013, facebook and a number of other tech companies announced the launch of a partnership for bringing those online who aren’t there yet. Does internet.org really help to “improve billions of lives”, Mark Zuckerberg writes in a whitepaper?

Getting an interview with Mo Tsokani* hadn’t been an easy task. Tsokani is heading one of two neighbouring youth shelters in Kalanga. Kalanga is an informal settlement in South Africa’s biggest former township, Soweto. Most families in the area around the youth shelters live in tin huts. There is no legal electricity connection and no sewage system.

Mo Tsokani is a busy man. I interviewed him for a research project on mobile internet use amongst young South Africans in July 2013. While Tsokani was speaking to me, he was simultaneously trying to settle a fight between two toddlers about a toy car, advising his colleagues on what to feed the approximately 30 young people living at the shelter for dinner that night, and dealing with the request of a young woman if she could charge her phone in that building – the only one at the time with functioning electricity.

“Inviting men out there” on facebook

The young woman brought his latest worries right there into our conversation: Mo Tsokani, from what I can tell after our conversation, would not agree with Zuckerberg about the mainly positive effects of connectivity. Tsokani sees the risks attached to connectivity for the young people  at his shelter.

At the time of internet.org’s launch in August 2013, Zuckerberg emphasized the economic benefits of internet connectivity and claimed connectivity will enable new internet users to access the knowledge economy. Now, a year later, internet.org has become more tangible. A few weeks ago, one part of the initiative was launched in Zambia. According to the South African Praekelt Foundation for mobile solutions, Zambian subscribers to the network provider Airtel can now access a number of websites for free on their phones – facebook, but also wikipedia, included. Economic empowerment and free knowledge?

Entering the knowledge economy? One of the Soweto schools where I conducted research on mobile phone and internet use.
Entering the knowledge economy? One of the several Soweto schools where I conducted research on mobile phone and internet use.

“I was advising one of my girls about the facebook”, Tsokani explained to me while sipping his light-brown instant coffee from a tin cup. “I am not normally into that, but one day I had this bad feeling, that said ‘Mo, check the facebook. Check your kids, see whats going on.’ And I checked and wow, I felt very bad. With the pictures they had posted and the messages, I saw danger. And all I saw also was a different person to the person I know. So meaning this person is living two lives and inviting men out there.”

South Africa spearheads the African “mobile revolution”, a significant rise in access to mobile phones throughout the past decade. Mobile phone ownership in South Africa has risen from 32.3% to 72.9% between 2001 and 2007. Along with increased phone access, the availability of mobile internet amongst South African youth has risen significantly. In 2011, 57% of all web-traffic in the country came from mobile phones, as opposed to only 25% in the USA. About one in four South African internet users exclusively relies on their phones to access the internet. Members of this group are likely to be younger than 25 years of age. South Africa thus isn’t the worst place to examine the effects of recent significant increases in connectivity – exactly what internet.org envisions for other places, too.

UNICEF and researchers warn about cyber-risks in South Africa

Tsokani’s worries that the increase in connectivity amongs young people comes with unique risks seems to be qualified. Of course the relationship between increased connectivity and sexual and other physical hazards and violence is difficult to measure. Nevertheless, researchers like the South African media scholar Tanja Bosch have noted an increase in “sexting” (described by her as the act of sending sexually explicit material, or photographs between mobile phones) to accompany the rise in mobile phone and mobile internet penetration in South Africa.

In addition, UNICEF warns in a 2012 report that the common practice of South African youth to meet up with strangers they encountered online, in the context of extremely high rates of rape and sexual violence, “can have incredible repercussions […]”. The incident of a 15-year old who allegedly was raped after meeting up with a stranger she knew from the South African chat platform mxit made sad headlines.

Unequal abilities to handle online risk

Cyberstalking and Pornography are of course not a problem confined to countries where internet connectivity has drastically increased recently. Similar things can happen in industrialised countries where connectivity is high and well-established. Nevertheless, the point to be made here has been concisely phrased by researcher Tanja Bosch: “By virtue of […] social inequalities […], all youth are not equally skilled when it comes to the use of computer technologies”.

Economically poor young people, whose lives Zuckerberg and his internet.org partners want to improve by bringing them connectivity, tend to be much more vulnerable to risks attached to the internet and social networks than their wealthier peers.

For example, UNICEF points towards the lack of parental supervision of their children’s internet use in South Africa – a topic around which more sensitivity is likely to exist where the internet has been around for longer. World-Bank ICT specialist Michael Trucano emphasizes the need for research on the unique risks attached to the internet for children in so-called “developing countries”, which are likely to be different from those in industrialised countries. And, again, he critizes the lack of awareness for these risks: “When participating in discussions with officials planning for the use of computers and the Internet in schools in many developing countries, I am struck by how child Internet safety issues are often only considered as an afterthought — if indeed they are considered at all“.

Selling sex to get a phone

Mo Tsokani from Kalanga has its own explanations for the risks attached to connectivity amongst the young people living in his shelter. With more peers being online through owning smartphones, the pressure on young people to have one themselves rises, he says. But the money for that is often lacking amongst families in Kalanga. „Being a sister, you go there, you compromise your body just to have the latest cell phone, the blackberry, you name them. And then you get the cell phone, but you lost something that you will never ever get back and it will haunt you for the rest of your life”.

In a place where young poor women even pay for their bus rides to school with sex, it is not difficult to imagine they will do the same for a fancy phone. The question is: If a smart phone, made possible through internet.org, soon enables users to get online for free, won’t having one be even more tempting?

The provincial government recommends:
The provincial government recommends: “Avoid sex for money or material things (cellphones, etc.)”
Poster spotted in a Soweto school.

In addition, Tsokani also sees social networks as a threat because they make prostitution easier to facilitate: “The one who finds a sugar daddy there, she’s showing to friends”. He imitates the conversations he believes to be going on amongst girls at his shelter: “‘Where did you find him?’ ‘On facebook, you know, he bought me 1,2,3,4’ R’eally?’ ‘Yeah, you know I can introduce you to others online’’.

Urgent need for education and awareness

Of course internet.org and the companies and individuals involved in the partnership are not to blame for any of this. But the point is: New forms of media will never be exclusively good or exclusively bad for people who are just gaining access to them.

In her famous TED talk, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns her audience that only hearing one single story about a country can never reveal the full truth about it. The same applies to the effect of internet connectivity for the people who are not yet connected. With internet.org and Mark Zuckerberg being quick to exclusively emphasize the positive aspects of increased connectivity in developing countries, one year after internet.org’s inception it is about time to speak about risks, too.

By no means do I want to be patronizing and suggest that young people in the global South should not gain access to the internet. Instead, technology firms and politicians need to become aware that being online entails unique risks for young people growing up under economic and psychological pressures different from those in industrialised countries. For example, in industrialised countries, parental sensitivity for cybersecurity tends to be higher. The topic has started to finds its way into school curricula. And young people in the global North are less likely to be so poor that they sell their bodies for a smart phone.

Mo Tsokani wouldn’t want to ban mobile phones and mobile internet from his shelter. Instead, he’s asking for more education on the risks he observes. For him, the internet has “to go with education”. Young people in South Africa, he asks, need to “have a platform where they can ask questions about cell phones” and the internet. Maybe internet.org ought to come up with ideas on exactly such a space – as a good intention for the second year of its life.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

*Mo Tsokani is not his real name. His name and the name of the informal settlement within Soweto have been changed to protect the privacy of the people who participated in my research project.

Work cited by Tanja Bosch: Bosch, T. 2011. “Young women and ‘technologies of the self’: Social networking and sexualities”. Agenda: Empowering women for gender equity 25(4): 75–86.

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