Will we go back to civil discourse after election trolling?

Thursday October 22 2020
kbd warriors

Some people have made trolling their full-time job online. FILE PHOTO | NMG


Speaking of modern-day political dialogue and social media: are we going to recover? It has been a very unusual four years. Since he became US President, Donald Trump has single-handedly changed the landscape of news and social media in his country.

In Tanzania, once upon a time it was considered ‘cultured’ to speak well in a public setting, especially in Kiswahili. Being an oral culture, I think social media suited us quite well and so we took to it nicely. We literally took to it nicely — the same rules applied as in regular conversation where one had to be polite even in disagreements, and humour was appreciated.

But we are not an island so the ways of the world have come to us. Trolling is the art of making arguments that infuriate the other participants in a discussion so that the discussion can be derailed. There is nothing new about this technique but it was probably harder to do in a physical setting. Some people have made it their full time job online. Russia is at the forefront, having made the art of heckling into a powerful political tool and a lucrative business.

I was asked recently why the youth in particular are prone to being rude online and found myself getting offended on their behalf.

Yes, it is difficult to defend the freedom of expression which can give rise to bad online behaviour, when you know that something so valuable is being abused on purpose. But to assume that this is a ‘youth’ issue is unfair.

During the campaign season and before it, we have all been privy to public addresses by various leaders. They never swear nor use foul language.


Nonetheless, as a woman I have felt slighted time and time again and as a citizen I have had cause to wonder at the language being used and the messages being delivered to me. You can avoid cursing and still be mean spirited.

And I would argue that it is this very attitude that trickles down into society and colours our conversations. We are patriarchal which means that the gatekeepers of acceptable behaviours are never the youth, they just follow along trends and popularise them, it couldn’t be done if it were not condoned. One of the ways I can tell that the behaviour is being tolerated and even encouraged is because the online platforms in Tanzania have changed radically since the year started, with hostility being used to silence outspoken voices.

It has in fact attracted the attention of online users and we now call our local trolls ‘bots’ and sometimes make fun of them for being paid to do what they do online, but this just means we are acknowledging that there is a problem here. From Russia to Dar, without love.

I hope that going forward once we are done with voting things might return to the way they were.