While such groups can forge stronger community ties, researchers say that without proper moderation by an internal mediator, they can become hotbeds for fearmongering and racial profiling in a country still scarred by apartheid segregation.
Though exact numbers of community security WhatsApp groups are nearly impossible to track, SA security analyst Ziyanda Stuurman said the unregulated “wild west of social media” surveillance is becoming more common.
Covid-19 lockdowns heightened people's desire to connect through social media, but the trend also saw more disinformation circulating and fed long-standing paranoia about crime, said Stuurman.
“Fake news can spread quickly and this can lead to real violence,” said Stuurman, pointing to the July 2021 riots in the country that led to mass vigilantism when social media was ablaze with unverified content.
“We can start to see threats around every corner,” she said.
The widespread use of social media has led to an explosion in neighbourhood groups around the world, including for surveillance, with residents even reporting on each other for alleged breaches of coronavirus quarantine rules.
Anthropologist Leah Davina Junck, who studied her local neighbourhood WhatsApp group in Cape Town for over a year in 2016, found so-called “couch patrolling” from the window or on the way to the shops — with quick and fast assumptions pulled from fleeting sightings — was widespread.
Code names to describe different races quickly became the norm, for example “Charlie” for so-called coloured or mixed-race people, “bravo” for black, and “whiskey” for white, Junck found.
Kisten witnessed code language evolve into tangible violence.
When a black former employee of Kisten's neighbour who was fired after drinking at work turned up to ask for his job back, it unleashed a flurry of WhatsApp messages that quickly escalated, said Kisten.