Diaspora, religion and the challenges of social life in the digital era

Social media platforms have remained used in ways that are inconsistent with social and religious norms

By Alois Baleni


History has it that in the past migrant labour relied on handwritten messaging in the form of hard copy letters for their communication.

The turnaround in the communication during the era of analogy was prolonged. Institutions such as community schools were used over time to distribute letters through their private postal bags.

Times have since shifted to the digital era and communication has become highly modernised and swift. The social media is generally one of the contemporary populous modes of communication.

The network coverage is good across many countries and the reception is equally fair. We are in the era of digital communities. Social Anthropologist Primus Tazanu writes fondly on the power of the mobile phone in remittances and the huge benefits of staying connected.

The diaspora community has become sophisticated and highly digital. Life has generally become a digital entity. The recent Covid-19 pandemic has also strengthened the practice of digital worship. Both the social and religious lives of the diaspora community have become highly digitalised.

Matters of morality beyond simple connectivity and convenience have come to play. Social realities such as migration contribute to the constitution of the diaspora community.

What has become the underside of this digital social life is the question of immorality. Although morality can be regarded a contested and subjective subject, particular social practices have tainted the digital era of social media.

Ridiculing the nudes

WhatsApp is the most exploited platform. Nude bodies of raped migrant women sell like hot chips. In the current social media language these explicit pictures of women tend to “trend”.

Although for purposes of communication social media is a significant platform especially for the diaspora communities, the question of morality remains contested. What makes such bodies to trend and what are the standards that regulate such material?

It would appear in some instances the originators of such materials are faceless and even where some self-identify it becomes names that can hardly be identified with known figures. This nude-body-material trending generally raises more questions than answers.

It remains unclear beyond informing the diaspora community of such unfortunate acts what exactly becomes the motive. This is because the material is generally accompanied with voice note commentaries that sexualise and ridicule the nude bodies.

Commentary of sexualisation of such material accumulates and circulates among groups.

The motive to inform becomes undermined if not completely lost. It becomes more of entertainment than solidarity against gender violence. As such nude bodies of women become consumables of leisure and also viral forms of entertainment.

The platforms of gender violence are on the expansion than on decrease.

In the few past weeks a diaspora woman was captivated by her fellow women of the diaspora community. Her video started to trend and she was being humiliated for her actions of infidelity.

Christian perspective

Her narration was that she had visited a seemingly old aged boyfriend compared to her own age. The question remains the motive of appropriating social media platforms to expose and distribute what could have been generally taboo to do in the past era. Religion has not escaped this digital turnaround.

While there has been an enormous religious benefit from social media through recorded sermons, prayers and other church activities during the Covid-19 moment, there have also been demerits.

Acts of infidelity among fellow worshippers have been uncovered through social media originating from church WhatsApp groups and inter-church groups.

WhatsApp messages in between fellow church members having extra marital affairs including nude pictures circulate and also trend over time into the broader society. In most instances there are no messages of solidarity but instead there is damaging rebuke. It becomes unclear what the role of religion is in the context of the exposure of such acts.

What remains as an unresolved matter is whether or not it is moral to perpetuate the exposure of what is already labelled as acts of immorality. In other words is it moral to expose immorality particularly from a Christian perspective?

This brings the broader field of Christian religion into antagonism with some aspects of social media on matters of morality.
Death on the other side has also been another area that equally trends on social media.

However it cannot be completely dismissed that information on missing persons and unidentified dead persons has assisted many in the diaspora. There is another side where the deceased’s bodies are circulated on social media platforms.

I recall vividly in one of the WhatsApp groups a man’s dead body and two of his children’s dead bodies handing side by side from a tree did trend.


Very schooled WhatsApp group members raised derogatory commentary ranging from stupid to idiot to describe the deceased man. What remained unattended was the underlying cause of death and the attack was on death itself as in the dead man.

The impact of the digital era on religion and the general social life of the people in relation to morality has become a new terrain of contestation. There is no doubt that rebuking acts of infidelity and conveying death messages remains social forms of regulation.

The new developing puzzle is the manner in which morality has lost its meaning in the midst of drive of the era of digital communities. A body of a nude woman or man with a full view of their face can trend and reach their in laws, children, parents and siblings for example.

How can morality be negotiated and regulated in ways that take rehabilitative and or correctional interventions into account as progressive social and religious practices in a digital era? Life has generally and specifically become a digital entity in diaspora communities.

Social media platforms have remained used in ways that are inconsistent with social and religious norms. The lives of the diaspora are contained in a mobile phone, it decides their social and religious fate, instead of connecting lives there are instances of disconnection at the hands of immorality.

Alois S Baleni is a Research Fellow: Society, Work and Politics Institute/African Centre for Migration and Society
Wits University, Johannesburg, South Africa. He is former Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Award Visiting Scholar The University of Winnipeg/ Wits University


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