Afro-digital ethics, law and online hate in Africa

Author: Thompson Chengeta
European Research Council Fellow on Artificial Intelligence Ethics and law, University of Southampton

Introduction

Across the globe, there is a general increase in online hate and sharing of hateful messages on online platforms. The past weeks saw hateful and xenophobic hashtags trending in South Africa. As noted by some commentators, online hate “can pollute civic discourse, inflict harm on targeted victims, create and exacerbate social divisions, and erode trust in the host platforms”. Online hate should not only be dealt with in terms of the law but also afro-digital ethics. With increased internet penetration in Africa, advent of smartphones and digital platforms, many people spend most of their time online. In this digital age, the virtues of our lives are beginning to be shaped and influenced by our virtual lives. Yet, not much has been done to guide our lives – particularly those of young people – in this new virtual world. The African saying “it takes a village to raise a child” denotes communitarian ethos relating to duties of the elderly in the community to instil African ethics in young persons. But does such an African village exist online? While digital technologies are undoubtedly impacting our African utopias or dystopias on what it means to be humane, the elderly who usually enforce and instil African ethics and morality in young people are offline. For parents who are online, they rarely have access to their children’s online platforms for many reasons including the use of ghost accounts. I also contend that a failure to respect African ethics online is a result of the breakdown of African communitarian ethos in the real world. For example, the spread of hateful content against fellow Africans has its genesis in economic failures of African leaders, most of whom are selfishly and corruptly enriching themselves.

Law, international standards and online hate

Individuals engaged in online hate usually claim that it is their right to freedom of expression. Domestic laws in Africa and international law prohibit online hate and clearly distinguish between freedom of expression and incitement to hatred. The Rabat Plan of Action notes that what distinguishes online hate and freedom of expression is the content and form of the speech, the intent to incite the audience against a target group, its social and political context, extent of its dissemination, likelihood of harm and status of the person sharing the content.

There are also current initiatives to enforce laws proscribing online hate through artificial intelligence technologies that use advanced computational methods such as stochastic modelling, machine learning and natural language processing to autonomously detect and delete hateful content. Indeed, technology is a double-edged sword. While these methods may work in combating online hate, they present a myriad of human rights challenges relating to the ethics of free speech. Furthermore, in Africa, one of the challenges with these methods in combating online hate is the fact that dictatorial governments use them for their own selfish political gains. It is for this reason that on 17 June 2020, Global Partners Digital, Centre for Human Rights, ARTICLE 19, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa and PROTEGE QV came together to launch “an interactive map to track and analyse disinformation laws, policies, and patterns of enforcement across Sub-Saharan Africa” with the aim of assessing their compliance with human rights.

Afro-digital ethics and online hate

The problem of online hate is deep rooted; the law alone cannot sufficiently deal with the problem. Afro-digital ethics can be very useful as they not only focus on how technology is shaping our political, social, and moral existence but also articulate ways of how to retain the core of our African humanism in this digital age.

African morality is founded on ubuntuism or humanism within which our interests as humans of Africa are tied together. African ethics can be explained in terms of communitarian ethos of our communities. Such communitarian ethos teaches us of natural sociality and that community life is the essence of the African human being who is morally obligated to pursue the common good with love, virtue and compassion. They should apply in the virtual world as they apply in the real one.

Also central to African ethics is character which is linked to personhood. As is evident in many African communities, it is good character and how you treat others that makes you a person. For example, in Zimbabwe’s Shona community, “munhu” means a person while “hunhu” means good character. When someone is of bad character, it is said “haana hunhu”. During colonial times when the white minority racially discriminated against black people, the term “munhu” was used to exclusively refer to black people. In other words, racists failed the test of personhood. When someone does good, members of the Shona community say “uyu ndiye munhu manje” which means “this is a real person”.  This moral conception of personhood in African ethics is at the core of our relationships as Africans and should continue to be reflected in the virtual world as they act as a bulwark against bigoted attitudes towards members of other communities.

But how can these African virtues be enforced in the virtual world where people (keyboard warriors) either think that they are untouchable; that the ethos that govern the physical world are inapplicable or resort to use of ghost accounts? Perhaps the solution is for authorities to incorporate afro-digital ethics into education curricula to inculcate, at an early age, African humanism online. Through Afro-digital ethics, pupils and students should be conscientized of the negative impact of spreading hate, misinformation and disinformation online. On account of the reach of the internet, what one shares on online platforms may not only destroy what it means to be African, but also people’s lives. Where the law cannot reach, perhaps, ethics can. Digital ethics teach us what we owe to each other as humans online and what governments owe us as “digital beings”.

About the Author:

Thompson is a European Research Council Fellow on Artificial Intelligence Ethics and law at the University of Southampton where he undertakes research and project-related leadership on autonomous weapon systems (AWS). His PhD thesis (University of Pretoria) was on international law and ethics relevant to the governance of AWS while his LLM thesis (Harvard Law School) was on elements that define human control over AWS. He has special interest in the intersection of artificial intelligence, law and African ethics. Thompson is an executive board member of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics and also serves as an expert member of the International Panel on the Regulation of AWS and the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s