Citizen surveillance and social media during South Africa's lockdown

Surveillance has become a common concern in public debates, but it is usually associated with the power of tech corporations to surveil people through algorithms. In the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, business studies scholar Shoshana Zuboff highlights the worrying trend of companies such as Facebook and Google exploiting our personal data for their own purposes, and thereby undermining democracy.

But there are other kinds of surveillance that we do not often think about. People use social media to watch each other, a trend that is described in the academic literature as “coveillance”. Think for instance about how Twitter has been routinely used for online shaming, to hold individuals accountable for behaviour deemed offensive or problematic.

People also frequently hold powerful people, business and institutions to account through their social media activities – what academics call “sousveillance”, from the French word sous, that means below: “surveillance from below”.

When Covid-19 hit South Africa with its first case on 5 March 2020, people turned to social media for information, and began sharing news items and circulating jokes and memes about the virus. These activities created a sense of agency for users, allowing them to make sense of the unfolding Covid-19 situation, and of the anxieties and uncertainties associated with it.

As the country went into full lockdown on 26 March, people became less concerned with sharing information, and started to use social media to surveil how fellow citizens were complying (or not) to lockdown rules. The activities of those believed to be contravening the regulations were often publicised, sometimes with more than a touch of irony.

A user posted a humorous video where his sister is filmed jogging. As she exits the frame, he exclaims in Afrikaans Bianca, jy mag nie! (“Bianca, you are not allowed!”). The expression went viral. Another expression that spread far and wide was Hugo, bel die polisie (in Afrikaans “Hugo, phone the police”), jokingly reminding people that breaches of lockdown regulations should be reported to the police. The phrase was taken from a viral video showing a woman telling her husband to call the police, as a brawl erupted nearby.

Local community Facebook pages were flooded with posts from people reporting individuals for hosting visitors in their homes, or pretending to go out on grocery shopping (which was allowed) while in fact exercising outdoors (which, at the height of the full lockdown, was not). People tagged the South African police in their tweets about unlawful behaviour, sometimes posting photographs of non-compliant individuals.

A major argument erupted in a Facebook group, where runners commented that people should not be allowed to post activities which were not taking place in their backyards. In another instance, a Twitter user boasted about how good of a boyfriend he was for bringing his girlfriend chocolates, but then quickly deleted his post as he was ostracised by other tweeters. The screenshot of his original message circulated widely, shaming him as an example of irresponsible citizenship.

Other users celebrated arrests of people who violated lockdown by reposting images and videos of these altercations with the police. One video shows a woman trying to escape the police while illegally walking her dog; and in another instance, a video shows a group of surfers being apprehended by police, with the soundtrack of the US rapper KRS-One's song Sound of da Police added to the moving images. Such posts were shared many times and attracted high levels of engagement, with hardly any expressions of sympathy.

The examples I mentioned so far fit well in the category of coveillance, that is, people surveilling each other. But there were many examples of sousveillance too, as several people expressed their frustrations at the government restrictions.

In one instance, somebody shared a video of himself mowing his front lawn and shooing away cops who asked why he was outside, followed by numerous indignant comments from others about the allegedly blatant and unlawful police behaviour. In other instances, people highlighted the inequalities of the pandemic by commenting on those restaurants that were allowed to operate, in some cases making allegations that some establishments were using fake permits to stay open. Citizens were particularly vocal about luxury restaurants staying open in full lockdown, while small shops in low income areas were forced to shut down.

In some instances, this sousveillance was also deployed by journalists, such as radio personality Aden Thomas who posted a Facebook video of himself outside a camp for homeless people set up by the authorities in Cape Town, protesting the rule that journalists were not allowed inside.

South Africans’ online surveillance activities during the Covid-19 lockdown have shown that, while we are often subject to the algorithmic power of social media platforms, citizens can use the same platforms to exercise their own “disciplining” power to express what they think makes “good” behaviour and “good” citizens. As media studies scholar Alice Marwick puts it, through social media surveillance people “formulate a view of what is normal, accepted, or unaccepted in the community”.

This is of course not something exclusive to social media, and has been going on for a long time in communities around the world, well before digitalisation. But as barrister Jamie Susskind argues in Future Politics, “the digital lifeworld will bring about a transformation in the capacity of humans to scrutinize each other”. Social media greatly enhance such capacity.

It would also be a mistake to see these platforms as just “tools” we use. Borrowing a metaphor from media studies scholar Daniel Trottier, these platforms are more like virtual “dwellings” which we inhabit as second homes, or perhaps digital extensions of our physical homes, but also public spaces for the formation of public opinion. Geographically disperse and socially and politically diverse individuals can meet online and deliberate on key public matters.

But the disciplining activities South Africans engaged during lockdown also show a darker side: excessive surveillance of others can lead to some voices dominating the online space, and a silencing of people who become reluctant to share views and behaviours that do not adhere to the group consensus established in the court of social media public opinion. This is not a good thing and can result in the shrinking of the public sphere.

There is also the danger that online surveillance behaviour could lead to the formation of hostile crowds against the disciplined citizens. Virtual mobs are a well known phenomenon all around the world. In South Africa, there is already a widespread problem with vigilante justice, as citizens, frustrated with high levels of crime and violence, and inadequate police services, sometimes take the law into their own hands. Vigilante justice could also result from citizen surveillance activities. Citizen policing of virtual spaces and the rise of virtual mobs could go beyond the kind of relatively “soft” disciplining we have seen during lockdown, and escalate into offline vigilante violence, further blurring the distinction between online and offline, and making the work of law enforcement agencies more challenging.

For all the talk about the democratic potential of social media, this is another cautionary tale that the kind of activities we often take for granted in our daily online interactions can have serious negative consequences for our fellow citizens and society as a whole. We need to be watchful that such routine behaviours do not end up causing more bad than good.

Tanja Bosch is Associate Professor of Media Studies and Production in the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town. Her forthcoming book is titled Social Media And Everyday Life In South Africa (Routledge, September 2020).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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