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Tag Archive: cyberbullying

Disinformation – now you can report it

Both disinformation and misinformation can cause harm, but one is intentional

Donald Trump may have coined the expression “fake news”, but the concept has been around a lot longer. From free airline tickets offered on Facebook to cures for COVID-19 circulating on WhatsApp, unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve probably been the recipient of disinformation or misinformation at some point. What’s the difference?


Disinformation is intentional, it is “false information which is intended to mislead, especially propaganda issued by a government organisation to a rival power or the media.” Digital disinformation, furthermore, is: “false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted online to intentionally cause public harm.” 


Misinformation is also defined as “false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive”; but to differentiate it from disinformation, it has come to mean unintentional false information. However, misinformation can and often does have its roots in disinformation. For example, false information may be fed to the public via social media, and from there it is picked up and recirculated by any number of unsuspecting users who trust the information because it came from a friend. In the early days of lockdown, a WhatsApp message went viral, purporting to be the words of a doctor based at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, about COVID-19. He took to Twitter to deny authorship, and his rebuttal was published online by a reputable news agency. He felt compelled to do that because the message had spread round the country on WhatsApp groups in a day.


A scam is a form of disinformation, but its meaning is more limited. A scam is a fraudulent scheme, usually intended for the profit of the scamster. Along the way, gullible individuals are harmed, at least financially, but the impact is nowhere near as pervasive or subversive as disinformation.

Why is disinformation so dangerous?

Real411 is an organisation set up to allow members of the public to report incidents of disinformation. In the words of Real411, disinformation is dangerous because it is “…biased information that deliberately misleads by manipulated facts or narrative. What appears to be truth can sometimes be propaganda being peddled to sway public opinion with the intent to cause harm. Disinformation can cause public harm where it is published with the intention to interfere with or infringe the public’s right to make informed decisions about matters of public importance or matters of public interest. This in turn affects the public’s right to participate fully and effectively in society.”


Disinformation can disrupt elections or spread fear. The latter is a particular concern at the moment, as our government struggles to convey accurate information about COVID-19 in the face of widespread mis- and disinformation. We are all particularly vulnerable to disinformation where there are heightened emotions, complex issues at stake, and where none of us really know very much about the subject. It becomes very easy for unscrupulous individuals to use our fear and their disinformation for gain, e.g. to sell sanitisers and, worse, unfounded “cures”. 

President Ramaphosa said, back in March, “While we are battling a contagious virus, perhaps the greatest dangers to our country at this time are fear and ignorance. We must appreciate the extent of the threat that this disease presents. We must accept the anxiety that it causes amongst our people, but we cannot allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with fear and panic. We should stop spreading fake and unverified news, and create further apprehension and alarm amongst South Africans.” The government has taken the arguably extreme step of criminalising those who intentionally deceive people about COVID-19, because mis- and disinformation puts people’s lives at risk.

What can you do about it?

Unfortunately, three months later disinformation is still with us. But the good news is, now there is something you can do about it. To stop the spread of disinformation, if you see something online that doesn’t look right to you, report it to You will need to indicate whether your complaint refers to misinformation or disinformation, hate speech, incitement to violence, or journalist harassment, along with where you saw it and what language it is in.

The complaint will be reviewed by the Digital Complaints Committee, which consists of a legal expert, a digital expert and a media expert. If the complaint is upheld, the recourse will include one or more of the following (in the case of disinformation): 

  • Online platforms will be approached for assistance to take down content
  • A fact-checking organisation will be approached for verification
  • Counter-narratives will be published in response to the harmful false information

COVID-19 disinformation

If the disinformation relates to COVID-19, the action will include:

  • Content will be referred to the platform(s) for removal
  • Counter-narratives will be quickly issued and the mis/disinformation flagged on social media
  • The case may be escalated to SAPS for further action

The law tightens

We also welcome the news that Parliament’s Select Committee on Security and Justice has adopted the Cybercrimes Bill. This will align our cybersecurity legislation with the rest of the world. The Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill criminalises the theft and interference of data and the distribution of harmful data messages. Harmful messaging includes:

  • A message that incites damage to property or violence
  • A message that threatens persons with damage to property or violence
  • A message that unlawfully contains an intimate image


We’ve written before about cyberbullying, which can cause tremendous distress and, in extreme cases, even lead to suicide. The Protection from Harassment Act 2011 covers electronic as well as physical harassment but, until now, we have not had specific legislation dealing with digital harassment. We welcome the new bill, which will also be the first non-binary legislation to be passed in South Africa. We will keep you informed and let you know when it is enacted (i.e. becomes law).

If you are the victim of disinformation or cyber crime

If you spot something you think is disinformation, contact Real411 or contact us. We will help you report it. If you are suffering digital harassment, contact us and we will review your situation and advise you of your rights, arranging a protection order if appropriate. Contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or today for more information or to make an appointment. We now offer online consultations. We’ll call you back and schedule a meeting at a time that suits you, on the platform of your choosing.

Further reading:

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Cyberbullying – it’s time to fight back

Cyberbullying is not just a problem overseas

Cyberbullying is on the increase, despite the rise in awareness of the problem and the emergence of new strategies and agencies to combat it. Reports of suicides induced by cyberbullying are common around the world, and South Africa is not immune. In February, a grade 6 learner in a Pretoria school took her own life after a photograph of her made the rounds on WhatsApp.

Cyberbullying in South Africa – some figures

According to a 2018 report by research company Ipsos Global Advisor, South Africa has the highest prevalence of cyberbullying out of 28 countries surveyed. The report indicated that more than 80% of South Africans are aware of cyberbullying and almost 75% of us believe anti-bullying measures are insufficient. Fifty-four percent of parents who took part said they know at least one child in their community who has been a victim of cyberbullying, an increase of 24% since 2011.

In Cape Town, university students take to social media to mock and torment others who fail to meet some unspoken standard of “coolness”. Our client, “A”, who was relentlessly pursued on Facebook with hurtful and damaging posts, eventually began receiving phone calls from undisclosed numbers with threats from a range of people claiming to be able to find her and worse. Although there were witnesses to the bullying, no one was willing to come forward publicly for fear of consequences. “A” said, speaking of her tormentor: “The horrible things she has done to people – two girls even contacted me to say that they had nearly commited suicide last year due to the way she attacked them on social media.” Cyberbullying can be as terrifying and real as any other form of bullying.

What is cyberbullying?

Unsurprisingly online harassment happens most often to young people, the generation that has embraced the digital revolution with the most fervour. However, those over the age of 25 are not immune to its devastating effects. Think of the vengeful ex who posts nude photos of the previous partner online in order to cause pain and embarrassment.

Perhaps the worst type of electronic harassment is cyberbullying, which the Cyberbullying Research Centre defines as: “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” Put very simply, “cyberbullying is when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through email or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.” Facebook and Twitter are common platforms for cyberbullying.

What are internet trolls?

While anyone of any age can be a victim of cyberbullying, the word tends to refer to the behaviour of adolescents and young adults. The term “internet troll” is defined by slightly different activities and usually refers to an adult. The Urban Dictionary’s top-rated definition of internet trolling is: “the deliberate act…of making random unsolicited and/or controversial comments on various internet forums with the intent to provoke an emotional knee-jerk reaction from unsuspecting readers to engage in a fight or argument.” Trolling tends to happen in comment threads, particularly on YouTube and Instagram, whereas cyberbullying often involves direct posts on Facebook or WhatsApp groups.

How much protection does our law offer against cyberbullying and trolling?

Here in South Africa we don’t have legislation specifically covering digital harassment (as they do in New Zealand), but the Protection from Harassment Act 2011 covers electronic as well as physical harassment. The Act includes sexual harassment, but it is important to note that other forms of harassment are equally damaging and protection is available under the law if you are suffering from bullying or character sabotage in cyberspace. The Protection from Harassment Act 2011 defines harassment as:

“…directly or indirectly engaging in conduct that the respondent knows or ought to know –

(a) causes harm or inspires the reasonable belief that harm may be caused to the complainant or a related person by unreasonably –

(i) following. watching. pursuing or accosting of the complainant or a related person, or loitering outside of or near the building or place where the complainant or a related person resides, works, carries on business, studies or happens to be;

(ii) engaging in verbal, electronic or any other communication aimed at the complainant or a related person, by any means, whether or not conversation ensues;

(iii) sending, delivering or causing the delivery of letters, telegrams, packages, facsimiles, electronic mail or other objects to the complainant or a related person or leaving them where they will be found by, given to or brought to the attention of  the complainant or a related person;

(b) amounts to sexual harassment of the complainant or a related person”

(Italics ours for emphasis.)

Stay safe from digital harassment

If you are being relentlessly targeted with abuse on social media or via email you can apply for a protection order under the provisions of the Act. At Cape Town lawyers SDLAW we can help you do that. But there is a lot you can do to keep yourself safe online. An article from BBC Newsbeat offers the following tips for staying safe online. This advice applies whether you are 15 or 50.

To stay safe online:

  • Don’t post personal information online, such as your physical address, your email address or cell phone number. Keep personal information as general as possible.
  • Never give anyone access to your passwords. Check the privacy settings on social media accounts and learn how to keep your personal information private.
  • Change passwords regularly.
  • Think very carefully before posting photos of yourself online. Once your picture is online, anyone can download it and share it or even change it. This is particularly important with photos that could be used against you, such as party photographs.
  • Never respond or retaliate to negative posts. Bullies like nothing more than a reaction. Don’t give them one.
  • Block any users who send you nasty messages on social media sites and delete anything they post on your page.
  • Never reveal your real name, your friends’ names, where you go to school or your place of work.
  • Don’t open emails, downloads or attachments from people you don’t know or trust as they could contain a computer virus or unwanted messages.
  • Block spam emails and delete them.

If you are the victim of cyberbullying:

  • Block the bully’s email address, phone number and delete them from social media contacts. Report their activities to their internet service provider (ISP) or to any websites they use to target you.
  • Never respond or retaliate, this can just make things worse. However difficult, try to ignore the bullies.
  • Make a note of the dates and times of bullying messages, along with any details you have about the sender’s ID and the URL.
  • Don’t pass on cyberbullying videos or messages.
  • If you’re being bullied repeatedly, think about changing your user ID, nickname or profile. It might seem unthinkable in the digital age, but consider taking a break from social media. If your profile disappears, there is nothing for bullies to target, and you will also have a respite from their debilitating behaviour.
  • Don’t ignore it if it happens to someone else. If you see cyberbullying going on, report it and offer your support.

Cape Town attorney can help

If you are not sure if the behaviour you are suffering is classed as harassment, we can review your situation and advise you of your rights. If you are the victim of cyberbullying, internet trolls or other online defamation, we can arrange a protection order against your assailant. Contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or today for more information or to make an appointment. Don’t suffer in silence. The law is there to protect you.

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