The internet is an important invention and the world is grateful for how it has made many of life’s pleasures easier to achieve. But what it has also done is place some of life’s horrors just a mouse click away.
Imagine a world without the internet. You would have to pick up the phone to book a plane ticket or to see how your friend with incurable wanderlust is doing in Micronesia. You would actually have to go to lectures and take down notes instead of relying on downloading slides from ClickUP. Love letters would still be conventional. Professional bloggers would be poor.
The internet is an important invention and the world is grateful for how it has made many of life’s pleasures easier to achieve. But what it has also done is place some of life’s horrors just a mouse click away. There are the big ones: child pornography, identity theft and suicide clubs. Then there is the age-old taboo of stalking that has evolved into “cyberstalking”. When the physical threat of danger is taken away and the culprit is a great distance outside of the restraining order zone, does stalking become more acceptable?
Amy Kroon, a first-year student studying BSc Biological Science, says no. “It’s still wrong. Keeping tabs on someone’s life without them knowing is shady whether you’re doing it in real life or not.” She says that she does not have a Facebook or Twitter account because they are just tools for strangers to know intimate details about her. “There’s so much that you don’t know about that goes on [on Facebook], it’s just safer to stay away.”
Facebook seems to be the main channel for cyberstalking. Since its introduction almost a decade ago, Facebook has been chided multiple times in the media about its privacy issues. Over the years this has improved, mostly prompted by highly publicised court cases that originated on Facebook. Facebook users can now block other users from viewing content on their pages. You can also choose what content you want to share and whether you want to share it with just your Facebook friends or with anyone who searches for your name. Despite all of this, stalking still continues on Facebook. People can easily create fake accounts that they can use to gain access to other people’s profiles.
“Online stalking is harmless,” says Katlego Nkoana, a second-year industrial engineering student. “I stalk boys that I like just to know more about them. I don’t want to hurt them or anything and I’m not some sort of sicko.” The problem is that sometimes cyberstalking can escalate and turn into something more threatening. Two months ago, Beeld reported a case of one Tuks student harassing another on Facebook. John Honiball ended up getting a court order against fellow medical student Gregory Bonarius. Honiball was quoted as saying that Bonarius’s behaviour was unnatural and that his patience had run out.
In the UK, under the Malicious Communications Act of 1998, cyberstalking is considered a criminal offence. But such a law can only be policed when the stalking has become aggressive or obvious, and cyberstalking usually leaves no evidence. In South Africa there is no law against cyberstalking. The only means of control is to get a court order that prevents the offender from contacting the target in any way. Usually, when an incident of cyberstalking is reported, it has already escalated into physical stalking and the offences reported are assault or trespassing. Cases like this show that even though cyberstalking may appear harmless, it can lead to dangerous situations if the intentions are malicious.
Still, many people maintain that cyberstalking is harmless and that people who use it to harass other people would have found a way to harass them without the help of the internet. “It depends on why you’re doing it,” explains Thato Molati, a second-year student studying psychology. “If you’re just doing it to check up on your ex or something then it’s fine. But people who do creepy things when stalking others over the internet are creepy in real life as well. Cyberstalking doesn’t create any psychological problem that wasn’t already there in the first place.” She says she is not sure whether or not cyberstalking should be made illegal in South Africa.
We are the generation who measures our success by the number of Facebook friends we have or how many people follow us on Twitter. Then we willingly surrender details about ourselves to hundreds or even thousands of people. We tell them about our love lives, we “check in” wherever we go and upload pictures from our vacations, our appendectomy surgeries and our stints in rehab. We tweet what we are doing and with whom and how we feel about it. It is true that the internet has made it easier for people to keep tabs on each other, but could it be that we have let it?
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Photo: Eleanor Harding