Growth of the social media space means #Abuse can now trend

By Kagure Mugo

Dealing with things on social media has become the norm.

From protesting fees to saving the rhino social media has helped us tackle with issues on an unprecedented scale. Whereas conversations were confined to bars, homes and formal debating spheres we can now simply go online and have a mass conversation with a few thousand people about anything that crosses our mind.

In South Africa a ‘twitter titan’ got exposed for being abusive to his girlfriend. Within 24 hours the topic was trending with 37, 000 tweets about ‘Pearl’ and 80, 600 about ‘Siya’ tweets as the aptly named Black Twitter descended like Batman on Gotham.

Siya Nyezi, a man with over 20, 000 followers and an apparent penchant for being a twitter troll was recently exposed for being physically abusive to his girlfriend which came complete with screen shots of conversations and a series of hashtags including #SiyaNyezi. The battle raged with some (mainly women) calling to and others (mainly men) either lauding him, vehemently defending him or being notably silent on the issue.

Those who claim to have had experiences with Nyezi have gone into the archives and produced some real nuggets. Nyezi’s exes came out and spoke about their experiences, from how he allegedly infected them with sexually transmitted diseases to how he emotionally manipulated them into staying with him.

The matter has branched off from Twitter to become the topic of conversation on radio stations, blogs, Facebook posts and podcasts.

This represents a dynamic shift in how we tackle topics. Just as much as a dick pic or illicit sex video can go viral, so too can conversations about abuse.

It was unprecedented for victims of abuse to be able to speak about their experiences on this scale. Before this, you would only have heard about abuse either as whispers, which were quickly silenced, or in a high-profile case, which would be quickly swallowed up by the next tabloid scandal.

Yet in this case and others like it, those who suffer abuse have been able to speak out and tear away at the veil that comes with domestic violence. Conversations that were previously confined to the shadows have now been brought into the light and we can no longer hide from the mirror we hold up to ourselves. We live in a world in which an abuser will find it harder to hide. This man could have lost his job because of the large number of retweets, mentions and subtweets.

But the situation is bittersweet. As much as victims of abuse or injustice find that they have a bigger platform to speak from about their experiences, and can elicit a bigger outpouring of support, they must also be prepared to suffer a backlash on an even grander scale. With the growth of the potential for retribution and exposure comes an equally increased potential for retraumatising the victim.

Whereas in the past the abuser would have continued his emotional and psychological abuse behind closed doors, tackling the matter in this way means potentially experiencing their wrath on a public platform.

The response by Nyezi was to tell his accuser to prove the abuse by “tweeting pics of her blue eyes and bruises”, followed by laughing emoticons. This was coupled with floods of people calling her a liar, a coward and an attention-seeker.

People, hiding behind their screens, attacked a woman who was brave enough to tell her story because the person she was accusing is “Twitter famous”. It mirrors the offline harassment and disbelief often experienced by women in these cases. Even though she tweeted screen shots of conversations in which he allegedly says: “Because you seem to understand when things are done with violence, this is how things are going to be now”, her story was questioned.

This online incident exposed the extent to which ideas about abuse are deeply ingrained. Masses of people rushed to the man’s defence, or remained silent, although they were vocal on matters such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. Those who you thought were like-minded comrades exposed themselves for who they are and new lines have been drawn. This was obvious when one looked at the reactions to those women who called out the fees revolution on not being intersectional and inclusive.

It shows the hierarchy of injustice and what we as a society value. The claim that a woman was abused becomes a matter that can be discussed and must be unequivocally proved, whereas racism is always intolerable. It showed up those who believe women deserve this and who believe violence is the answer. It showed us the beauty and ugliness of society – all in 140 characters.

First published on Mail and Guardian.

Some tweets from the trend:

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