As South African content manager Happiness Kisten chased her family’s escaped puppy up the street in her suburb of Durban in the early hours of the morning, she didn’t realize she was being watched.
But when Kisten, a black South African adopted by Indian parents, came home with a puppy in tow, her mother showed her a message on the neighborhood’s WhatsApp group warning residents of a black woman seen how she ran after a dog.
“At first I laughed, but afterwards I thought, this is very problematic. It made my stomach feel uncomfortable,” said Kisten, 29, who previously left the group when she became uncomfortable with the racial prejudice she experienced there.
South Africa’s crime rate is among the highest in the world, and criminologists say growing disillusionment with the police has contributed to a rise in community WhatsApp groups, in which residents engage in amateur surveillance.
While such groups can forge stronger community ties, researchers say that without proper moderation by an internal mediator, they can become hotbeds for fear-mongering and racial profiling in a country still scarred by the segregation of apartheid.
Although it’s almost impossible to track exact numbers of community safety WhatsApp groups, South African safety analyst Ziyanda Stuurman said unregulated surveillance is becoming more prevalent in the “social media wild west.”
The Covid-19 lockdown increased people’s desire to connect via social media, but the trend also saw more disinformation floating around and fueled long-standing paranoia about crime, Stuurman said.
“Fake news can spread quickly and this can lead to real violence,” Stuurman said, citing the July 2021 riots in the country that sparked mass vigilance as social media erupted with unverified content.
“We can start to see threats around every corner,” she said.
Widespread use of social media has prompted an explosion of neighborhood groups around the world, including for surveillance, with residents even reporting each other for suspected violations of coronavirus quarantine rules.
Anthropologist Leah Davina Junck, who spent over a year researching her local neighborhood WhatsApp group in Cape Town in 2016, found that so-called couch patrols from the window or on the way to the shops – with quick and quick assumptions made from cursory sightings were drawn – were widespread.
Code names to describe different races quickly became the norm, for example Charlie for Coloured—a term for mixed race in South Africa, Bravo for Black and Whiskey for White, Junck found.
Kisten saw code language escalate into tangible violence.
When a black former employee of Kisten’s neighbors, who was fired after drinking at work, showed up to reclaim his job, it sparked a spate of WhatsApp messages that quickly escalated, Kisten said.
Two local residents attacked the man, who was taken away by private security forces, with no consequences for his attackers, she said.
“I can understand the point of the groups when they’re used to alert people to real crime, but if someone might be working as a laborer or domestic worker in the area, there’s no point in profiling that person,” Kisten said.
Police said during the riots last July that under the Cybersecurity Act, anyone found inciting violence online could face a fine or three years in prison.
Stuurman said homeless people in her Cape Town neighborhood were widely viewed as suspicious individuals and residents sent a message saying they were “feeling bad” but still called the police “because they shouldn’t be here”.
“It really separates us from each other in a way that’s reminiscent of the apartheid past … the paranoia fuels the belief that someone shouldn’t be in my neighborhood and I feel justified in freaking out about it,” she said.
Fighting crime is a booming industry in South Africa.
It is home to nearly 2.5 million private security officers and nearly 10,500 registered security companies, according to the country’s private security industry regulator (PSIRA), making it one of the largest in the world.
Employees of private security companies and police officers are often members of neighborhood WhatsApp groups.
Teacher Khomotso Alvina Modjadji joined her local WhatsApp group of 250 members in 2018 when a neighbor in Thembisa township, near Johannesburg, told her about it.
In the primarily black neighborhood, the group isn’t about racial profiling, it’s about feeling safer and that “community is part of the police force,” she said.
“The group makes me feel safer. For example: The other day someone posted about a certain car robbing people, so instead of bringing my laptop home I left my laptop at school,” said the 31-year-old.
Having cops chatting helps, she added.
“If there’s a problem, the community goes as a group, and they can do a citizen arrest, and the cops on the WhatsApp group come quickly,” she said.
Police did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
There are ways for WhatsApp neighborhood groups to minimize the risk of attacking innocent people, including having a moderator “who facilitates and monitors the conversations and sets some rules for engagement,” Kisten said.
There are other platforms or avenues for community policing, Stuurman said, such as B. Local Community Policing Forums (CPF) – groups created specifically to patrol neighborhoods alongside police officers.
“There’s a delicate balance between connecting with neighbors in these chats and turning them into digital surveillance platforms,” she said.
A few months ago, a power outage meant Stuurman couldn’t open the automatic gate in front of her building. She sent a message through her building’s WhatsApp chat, and a neighbor came to manually open the gate for her in less than a minute, she said.
“We need to see if these groups can care less about surveillance and more about community,” she said.