Young people take the lead on internet security - together

Young people take the lead on internet security - together

UNICEF Timor-Leste
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UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/Noorani
01 July 2019

As the first generation to grow up with social media, young people in Timor-Leste are creating solutions to their unique challenges and leading the way towards a safer online community.

In a shady park in the heart of Timor-Leste’s capital of Dili, young people gather in groups under old fig trees. Among them are three volunteers from Hamutuk Ita Rezolve, a Facebook page for and by young people, to help them navigate contemporary issues facing their generation. Boldly, its title declares “we can resolve it together.”

This year, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is turning 30. So is the World Wide Web. When diplomats and advocates met to develop the CRC in 1989, social media as we know it today was inconceivable. 

Yet the four core universal principles set forth in the CRC - non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child - continue to light the way to keeping children and young people safe in a digital world. 

A new challenge facing by a new generation 

In recent years, Timor-Leste has seen a rapid rise in internet access following a long period defined by limited infrastructure, slow speeds and high prices. Now, increased competition and cheaper devices have brought the internet and social media to a growing middle class for the first time. But as the youngest nation in Asia, Timor-Leste is experiencing some unique challenges to keeping its young people safe online. 

Maria do Ceu Gusmao, 23, who coordinates the group of volunteers behind Hamutuk Ita Rezolve, is optimistic about the role young people can play. “In other countries people are really concerned about internet safety, but it’s not really a [widespread] concern in Timor-Leste yet. So, we’re trying to do what we can to be a part of the solution before it becomes a major societal problem.” 

Not only is general digital literacy low in Timor-Leste, but the rapid rise in online connectivity has provided an amplified space where content featuring traditionally taboo topics is freely shared – for better or for worse. Social norms around positive internet use are struggling to keep up. 

Isac da Costa de Jesus, 19, participated in a consultation organised by UNICEF to identify issues affecting young people and empower them to develop solutions. Attended by a diverse group of more than 50 students and young people, the consultation identified social media and the risks of its use as a priority, and the first issue the group should tackle. A group of eight volunteers was nominated by their peers to move the solution forward.

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UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/Noorani
Isac da Costa de Jesus, along with 50 other young people, attend a consultation meeting organised by UNICEF.

“As a young person, I felt sad seeing young people acting online in ways that are beneath them. Swearing at each other, sharing unacceptable things; I felt uncomfortable and concerned,” says Isac. “So, I’m happy that I can contribute to resolving the issue through this group.” 

Fake profiles, and those who hide behind them to harass and bully others, are of particular concern. “Some young people, particularly girls, have said to us: ‘People have sent us pornography online and we don’t like it.’ Or someone will take their phone number and share it in a group that’s sharing pornography to encourage others to contact them inappropriately,” says Maria. 

With limited resources, the group does what it can to help. Maria explains that they identify fake accounts and groups that share content of a pornographic nature and report them to the Facebook Help Centre. The hope is that Facebook will delete them. So far, they have identified and reported more than 100 offending pages, but often it doesn’t help. 

“Some of the accounts don’t post anything, and you can tell from their name that they’re probably not a real person. But Facebook doesn’t remove them. We feel really sad about that,” says Maria.

The limited available data shows that Maria’s suspicions might be right. Facebook user data collated by ‘We Are Social’, a social media marketing and communications company, shows that there are more than 560,000 Facebook accounts in Timor-Leste, which has a total population of 1.3 million. Of these, the lifetime average number of Facebook pages liked is just one, while the average activity in the past 30 days is also low, at seven comments, 13 likes and one share.  Such low activity might indicate that a large proportion of the accounts are not used genuinely and may be used to harass instead. 

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UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/Noorani

Language limitations 

One of the biggest challenges to ensuring the safety of Timor-Leste’s young people online is that the most widely spoken language, Tetun, is not recognised by Facebook’s systems. 

While most young people use Facebook’s Indonesian language option, the content is often in Tetun. This means that the nature of the written content can’t be picked up by Facebook’s moderation, even when it has been reported, so harassment and abuse can go unchecked. 

The Hamutuk Ita Rezolve group is hopeful that, one day, Facebook will work with them to deal with the inappropriate content officially. “I’ve tried to connect with Facebook via the Help Centre, but when I write to them, they don’t respond,” says Maria. “So, I tried to write to Mark [Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook] because he has a page, but he didn’t respond. My friends laughed at me for trying to directly contact the CEO but I said it’s OK, I want to try. I want to talk to him, because I feel like what we’re doing can contribute to Facebook.”

In the meantime, the Hamutuk Ita Rezolve volunteers are taking whatever measures they can to help other young people.  

Solutions by young people, for young people

Facebook was identified at the youth consultation as the priority platform to deliver a solution. “We asked ourselves: ‘As young people, what are the ways we can address this problem?’” says Maria. So, using their existing skills, the group creates simple videos, images and written content to share with their audience and provide advice based on the experiences of their peers. 

“We created this platform on Facebook because lots of people use it, so it’s easy for us to reach a lot of young people,” says Maria. 

The group meets regularly to brainstorm ideas and create content. Less than six months since the page’s launch, the group has created 20 short videos and have more than 3,100 followers. It’s a following they have grown 100 per cent organically. 

“We promote the page buy sharing it, because we don’t have any money to boost it. But because we’re sharing the real stories of young people, we have been able to organically grow our following,” says Isac.

Now, more young people are getting involved. 

Anajenia de Jesus da Costa, 20, also known as Jenni, happened upon the Hamutuk Ita Rezolve page on Facebook and started sharing the content widely because it resonated with her personal experiences. 

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UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/Noorani
“Social media is not virus, respect others.” Like Jenni, many young people have joined the Hamutuk Ita Rezolve community to fight internet bullying. Courtesy: Hamutuk Ita Rezolve

“I have also experienced a problem like this, where people gossip about you online. I started following Hamutuk Ita Rezolve and sharing their content. Then Maria inboxed me, asking if I would like to join them,” says Jenni. 

Maria is enthusiastic about the potential impact people like Jenni can have by sharing their stories. “By putting these solutions out there, young people who have experienced the problems we’re tackling are able to share their experiences and remind others to be careful,” she says. 

One step at a time 

Isac, also a member of Timor-Leste’s Youth Parliament Alumni group, has worked on several youth issues in the past. While optimistic about the potential to improve social media safety in Timor-Leste, he understands that the volunteers’ work alone can’t solve the issue. “This problem doesn’t have an easy solution, but we’re trying to do what we can to help,” he says. 

Timor-Leste’s penal code provides some scope for perpetrators of such harassment and abuse to be prosecuted for defamation, but Maria is not yet aware of any such case. “Young people don’t know that there is a law that can protect them,” she explains. 

For the time being, continuing to raise awareness of the issue and encouraging other young people to speak out and share their stories is the best option available to the group. They created a video tutorial on internet safety in the local language, which has been viewed more than 31,000 times and shared 1,979 times, showing a real appetite for information. They hope that, one day, they’ll have an even larger systematic impact. 

“I really hope that one day I will get an official email from Facebook, so that I can send them the list of identified fake pages and inappropriate groups, and they finally see why these should be deleted,” says Maria.