Three weeks ago, I moderated a session on the shrinking online civic space in Somalia with prominent panelists in Mogadishu. The forum was the first of its kind to be held in Mogadishu where key issues including online harassment, smear campaigns, trolling, cyberstalking and impersonation as well as online deformation were discussed. The Panelists included well-known local journalist Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimu who formerly worked with BBC and Reuters, Zahra Qorane a photographer based in Mogadishu and Badra Yousuf, researcher and curator of Global Shaper’s Mogadishu chapter.
These panelists shared different stories about online attacks on their social platforms, for instance, Mohamed’s twitter account was suspended in 2018 after it was allegedly reported by trollers, he had more than 15 thousand followers. Zahra’s Facebook account was hacked twice in 2015 in a period of less than five months and on the other hand Badra has been constantly attacked personally and professionally by trolls on twitter merely for expressing her opinion in her own space.
One Tweet, One Hundred Toxic Replies
A week later, I saw the dark side of social media for the first time after a wave of outrage swept on twitter violating my own space. It all started with one tweet I made which was about the newly finalized national curriculum by the Ministry of Education of the Federal Government of Somalia. The tweet said, “Having national curriculum is remarkable achievement but having it in Somali language is 2 step backwards! I’m not running away from our own language but the question is that is our language compatible with today’s scientific & technological terminologies?”
Then the quoted retweets and replies started coming in their hundreds like a storm, sent by trolls with their anonymous names, attacking me like I was an enemy of the state!
At first I tried to ignore and pretend like nothing has happened but the toxic tweets kept popping up reacting to my tweet. Of course I was expecting a different perspective or counter argument of my opinion but it was beyond my imagination that some incensed people including those I knew would go that low to abuse me personally just because I expressed my views in my own online space.
In this tweet, I was not targeting any specific institution nor did I attack an individual, I was expressing my personal opinion on why we need to have English language as medium of instruction in Somalia. But before I could even explain my argument, I was attacked with abusive and toxic comments! Some said that I am abandoning the Somali identity and therefore I am anti-Somali and anti-nationalist and some others said I need to be put in an isolated place “Abdifatah has been colonized mentally, we should set up institutes for people like him for re-education and rehabilitation”
It didn’t stop it there, some went even far by questioning my adherence to my own religion, basically labelling me as someone who is against Islamic teachings. I didn’t understand what my religious practice has to do with commenting on a curriculum. Another one wrote
“Where is this dude from, You must like your colonial oppressors, rather respect Somali resilience and ingenuity, you sound like SJW….” i couldn't finish this tweet because it was too much toxic!
Taking away my Somaliness
However, what mystified me the most was the fact that almost all the tweets against me were written in English even though they were against the idea of using English at all! Some, couldn’t even speak Somali. Others, thinking that I am diaspora (someone living outside Somalia) said in their tweet “You should stay wherever you are and you should never step foot in Somalia.” According to the location of this account, he or she is in San Diego, California.
I believe there is no other person on earth that is more Somali than me, I believe so because I grew up in the streets of Mogadishu, run on its narrowed corridors, swam on its beaches, ate its delicious food, played football in its indoor stadiums, went school and university in the same city. I have never been out of Somalia more than 20 days, as matter of fact, the longest days i have been out of the country were 19 days in Germany and 18 days in India. in short, I am locally made. Therefore, supporting the idea of using English language as medium of instruction in our national curriculum does not make me un-Somali.
The online Fadhikudirir (the incitement place)
But if I learnt one chief lesson from this mob attack, it is understanding how our society are aggressive and intolerant when it comes to having healthy discussions and generally how the online space is shrinking in Somalia. Traditionally, we are nomadic by nature and nomads are known to show their ‘bravery and dry eyed’ characteristics to take stand in order to get the lion’s share with no compromise at all. And it now seems that the same traditional Somali “fadhikudirir” which basically means “the incitement place” has been taken to social media platforms, this time gingered with toxic comments. Facebook for instance is transforming the Somali fadhikudirir into a serious online battle and as a result I personally stopped posting some comments. Now I feel that the Somali twitter space is on that direction too.
What did I do to fight back?
Basically I applied three different strategies to defend myself which I think would be helpful for anyone who come under attack on social media, especially on Twitter.
1- Respond Respectively: I was carefully responding and trying to explain my point to those who approached me positively, in some cases, we agree to disagree without judging each other’s opinion which was totally fine and healthy discussion.
2- Ignore: I didn’t stoop to the level of trolls, most of the negative and abusive tweets were coming from faceless and nameless trolls and I avoided engaging them at all.
3- Delete & Block: There were number of trolls who were not interested in discussion and civility but rather were there with the explicit intent of creating negative content directed at me, so I deleted their replies and blocked them. it helped relieve my stress
Twitter is one of the largest online platforms of public gathering that exists today and its meant to be a safe space for us to have our say and enjoy the freedom of expressing our views. And in such space, no one should receive threats or words of violence at all!