We are all told that we should be careful about how much information we share on the internet. To most of us, that means we should take care with our financial and personal information. By this point, the majority of us know that we shouldn't enter our bank details on websites which don't appear to be secure, or leave our full name and address in places where strangers can see them. The recent case of Stella Nyanzi should act as a reminder that there's something else we should be cautious about when we're online - sharing our opinion of powerful people.
In case you missed it, Stella Nyanzi is currently in jail for insulting the President of Uganda. Nyanzi, who is a pro-feminism activist and a long-term critic of President Museveni, was sentenced to eighteen months in prison because she used crude language in a poem she posted to her Facebook account about his three-decade rule of the country. She was charged with cyber harassment under the 2011 Computer Misuse Act, which some critics believe us being used to silence opponents of the Museveni government.
In typical style, Nyanzi has shown contempt for her sentence. She reacted to her imprisonment by baring her breasts during her appearance in court, and is yet to confirm whether she intends to appeal. If she does, she may face a harsher sentence; the maximum sentence for the offense she was convicted of is three years. Supporters of the President feel she got off lightly, and may push for harsher treatment if she were to appear before a judge again.
Criticizing Museveni is nothing new for Nyanzi. She's been criticized in the past for referring to him as 'a pair of buttocks,' although she wasn't charged with any offenses on that occasion. The poem which attracted the attention of prosecutors was a poem which was labeled as a tribute to the President's birthday, and contained use of language too offensive to reproduce here. She continued to use Facebook to discuss her trial up to to the point of her imprisonment, claiming that Ugandans are living under a dictatorship.
The example of Nyanzi is an extreme one - and a case in which she engaged in targeted abuse against the President - but it should still act as a warning that the things we say on social media can come back to haunt us at a later date. We send tweets and post status updates as easily as we would exchange a sentence with a friend in person, but when we're on social media, we're not having a personal conversation. We're broadcasting to the world, and we can never be sure who's watching or listening. More seriously, when a sentiment is expressed in writing as opposed to being spoken out loud, a negative comment we make about another living person could potentially be viewed as libel instead of slander. Libel tends to carry much harsher legal penalties.
Almost all of us know someone who got into trouble at work for something they've said or done on the internet, but sometimes the mistakes we make online can prevent us from obtaining work in the first place. It's now common for employers to check the social media accounts of a candidate to ensure that their moral character is consistent with that of the company. Just one poorly-expressed thought, or one carelessly posed photograph, could be the difference between you obtaining a job or not.
The further we go in life, the more people will look into our backgrounds. If we ever become public figures, everything we've ever said or done will be placed under a harsh spotlight. Already we're seeing public officials and celebrities being forced to issue apologies for things they said on the internet years ago. As the current generation of teenagers grow up, and take on important functions themselves, this problem is likely to become a more frequent occurrence.
It's for that reason that all of us should pause for thought before we press 'post' or 'send.' We should consider how a statement might appear not just to our friends, but to people we don't know. Otherwise, we're not really taking part in social networking at all - we're gambling with our futures just as surely as if we were playing mobile slots on website such as Kong Casino. When someone plays mobile slots, they have no idea what the result of their action in placing a bet might be. It might play well for them, and the mobile slots game will reward them, or it might play badly, and they win nothing. In mobile slots, players at least have a chance to win something they'll be happy with - people who take a chance with an unwise statement on social media have nothing to win, and everything to lose.
In the case of Nyanzi, what happens next is unknown. Campaign groups including Amnesty International have called for her immediate release and derided her trial as a sham, but given the nature of the personal insults she directed at the President, it's unlikely that the Government will be moved to release her unless there's an international outcry. She's lost the job she once held at the University of Makerere, and so she faces the task of rebuilding her life once she leaves prison no matter when that occurs.
As a political protester, she might consider that to be a price worth paying. For the average person commenting on their Facebook or Twitter account, the price is likely to be too high. If you're considering posting a negative comment about the state of your region or nation, or directly questioning the character or validity of someone in authority, you may be best advised to keep such thoughts for private conversations with your friends. Even then, be sure that you're not being recorded with a mobile phone camera or something similar. In the modern age, privacy is becoming a thing of the past. Once something has been posted on the internet, it might stay there forever - and you never know when it will come back to haunt you.