South Africa’s ‘Wild West’ WhatsApp Groups Fuel Racism and Surveillance

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When South African content manager Happiness Kisten chased her family’s escaped pup down the road in the early hours of the morning in her suburb of Durban, she didn’t realize she was being watched.

But when Kisten, a black South African adopted by Indian parents, arrived home with her puppy, her mother showed her a message on the neighborhood WhatsApp group warning residents that a black woman had been seen in chasing after a dog.

“At first I laughed, but then I said to myself, this is very problematic. It left me with a bad feeling in my stomach,” said Kisten, 29, who had previously left the group when she felt uncomfortable with the racial prejudice she witnessed.

South African crime rates are among the highest in the world, and criminologists say growing disillusionment with the police has contributed to a rise in community WhatsApp groups where residents engage in amateur surveillance.

While such groups can forge stronger community bonds, researchers say that without proper moderation by an insider, they can become hotbeds of scare propaganda and racial profiling in a country still scarred by apartheid segregation. .

Although it’s nearly impossible to track the exact number of community safety WhatsApp groups, South African security analyst Ziyanda Stuurman said unregulated surveillance of the “Wild West of social media” is becoming more and more popular. current.

The Covid-19 lockdowns have increased people’s desire to connect through social media, but the trend has also seen more misinformation circulating and fueling long-standing paranoia about crime, Stuurman said.

“Fake news can spread quickly and that can lead to real violence,” Stuurman said, pointing to the July 2021 riots in the country that led to mass vigilantism when social media was ablaze with unsanctioned content. checked.

“We can start to see threats around every corner,” she said.

apartheid past

The widespread use of social media has led to an explosion of neighborhood groups around the world, including for surveillance, with residents even reporting to each other for alleged breaches of coronavirus quarantine rules.

Anthropologist Leah Davina Junck, who studied her local neighborhood WhatsApp group in Cape Town for over a year in 2016, found so-called couch patrols from the window or on the way to shops – with Quick and quick guesses drawn from fleeting sightings – was prevalent.

Code names to describe different races quickly became the norm, for example Charlie for Colored – a term for mixed race in South Africa, Bravo for Black and Whiskey for White, Junck discovered.

Kisten saw coded language evolve into tangible violence.

When a former black employee of Kisten’s neighbor who was fired after drinking at work came forward asking to return to his job, it sparked a flurry of WhatsApp messages that quickly escalated, Kisten said.

Two local residents attacked the man who was taken away by private security, with no repercussions for his attackers, she said.

“I can understand the interest of the groups if they are used to alert people to a real crime, but if someone may be working in the area as a laborer or domestic worker, that has no meaning. sense to profile that person,” Kisten says.

Police said during the unrest in July last year that under cybersecurity law anyone inciting online violence could face a fine or three years in prison.

Stuurman said homeless people were widely viewed as suspicious characters in his Cape Town neighborhood and locals reported they ‘feel bad’ but still called the police ‘because they shouldn’t be here “.

“It really separates us from each other in a way reminiscent of the apartheid past… the paranoia fuels the belief that someone shouldn’t be in my neighborhood, and I feel entitled to stoke a frenzy about it,” she said.

community policing

In South Africa, crime fighting is a booming industry.

It is home to nearly 2.5 million private security personnel and nearly 10,500 registered security companies, according to the country’s Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA), making it the one of the largest in the world..

Personnel from private security companies and police officers are often members of neighborhood WhatsApp groups.

Teacher Khomotso Alvina Modjadji joined her local WhatsApp group of 250 members in 2018 when a neighbor in Thembisa township near Johannesburg told her about it.

In the predominantly black neighborhood, the group isn’t talking about racial profiling, but rather about a way to feel safer, and that “the community is part of the police department,” she said.

“The group makes me feel safer. For example: the other day someone posted about a certain car stealing from people, so instead of taking my laptop home, I left it at school,” said the 31 year old young man.

Having police in the chat helps, she added.

“If there’s a problem, the community goes there as a group, and they can do a citizen’s arrest and the cops from the WhatsApp group come quickly,” she said.

Police did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Conversation Monitoring

There are ways for neighborhood WhatsApp groups to minimize the risk of targeting innocent people, including having a moderator “who mediates and monitors conversations, and sets some rules of engagement,” Kisten said.

There are other community policing platforms or avenues, Stuurman said, such as local community policing forums (CPFs) — groups created specifically to patrol neighborhoods alongside police officers.

“There’s a good balance between connecting with neighbors in these chats and turning them into digital surveillance platforms,” ​​she said.

A few months ago, a power outage prevented Stuurman from opening the automated gate in front of his apartment building. She messaged her building’s WhatsApp chat and a neighbor came to manually open the door for her within a minute, she said.

“We need to see if these groups can become less surveillance-focused and more community-focused,” she said.

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