BY PHILLIP CHIDAVAENZI
POLICE in Harare are investigating two separate cases of young women raped by men they had hooked up with through Facebook posing to be potential partners.
In the first case, the two had agreed to meet after flirting on social media for a while, but the meeting turned into a nightmare when the 29-year-old woman was allegedly lured into a hideout and raped.
Earlier in the month, an 18-year-old Masvingo woman had also been raped under almost similar circumstances at a lodge in the tourist town.
While social media applications have largely been used for professional networking and seeking business opportunities among entrepreneurs, a lot of people have resorted to using it to seek social relationships and potential love partners.
Although for many years now, there has been an increase in the number of online dating sites specifically dedicated to serve those searching for love, it is only in recent years that Facebook has been used in the same way.
The reasons why people use such online facilities to link up with potential mates are varied.
According to Robert Mapurisa, an assistant lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe’s department of social work, many love searches online were linked to “poor social relationships”.
He indicated that social media networks such as Facebook had provided a convenient way out for mainly shy people.
“People look for partners on social media because of poor social relationships. Such a person ends up with no choice but to find comfort on social media. There is easy accessibility to a number of people in a very short period of time,” he said.
Mapurisa noted that there was easy access to many different people from the comfort of one’s home or office, rather than establishing physical relationships.
He said social media also provided individuals with the leeway to start and end relationships at any time when they deem it necessary by simply blocking access for the potential partners.
An information technology officer with TechnoSolutions, a Harare-based company, Tariro Matimbire, however, said social media was not the ideal place for people to hunt for potential partners.
She underscored that although she knew one or two married people who first met on Facebook, she would not encourage individuals to use the virtual networking site as a “dating agency”.
“Facebook and such other social networking sites belong to a realm often divorced from reality. What we often see on people’s timelines is not real. It is simply a projection of how the individual user wants you to see and believe about them,” she said.
“The cases that we have read about of women raped by men they met on Facebook demonstrate how social media dating is fraught with pitfalls.”
She said the same way fake news had taken a foothold in the country through the use of social media, it has also been used by people “portraying fake images of themselves” and could therefore not be trusted to present credible potential love partners.
Mapurisa concurred that social media often operated in the realm of make-belief — described by social scientists as cat fishing — as people could even lie about their real identities while their motives were unclear.
“There is what we call cat fishing, where a person lies about themselves on social media. There are individuals who lie so they can impress people on social media. A person can therefore portray a different personality from who they really are,” he said.
“When you then strike up a conversation with that person, they only speak in line with the information about themselves they have portrayed on Facebook.”
Following the Harare case, the police urged the public to desist from using social media in a manner that exposed them to abuse.
“A 29-year-old woman was raped after she was lured to meet her online boyfriend at night. The victim met the accused along Samora Machel, Harare for the first time and the two drove to a house where the complainant was later raped,” wrote the police on their Twitter handle recently.
“We urge members of the public against online dating and social media communication which later on leads to rape.”
According to Mapurisa, a normal relationship required “a human touch” through which parties are better able to assess each other’s intentions when they meet in real life.
“In every relationship there is need for a human touch … There is also need for physical assessment so that you read the person’s intentions. When you exchange feelings through social media by the time you meet that person physically you might not have control,” he said.
A lot of young professional women with busy schedules have resorted to using social media for dating as they rarely find time to go out and mingle with potential lovers and this is one reason why Facebook has increasingly become a dating site of choice as they often spent most of their working hours on the computer.
This was confirmed by leading cleric and Glory Ministries church founder Pride Sibiya, who said social media had provided a fall-back plan for those unable to find partners in the traditional way.
“While African culture insists people must date those close to them, referring to geographically close people, social media provide closeness on emotional and relational levels. This helps in a life where people are increasingly finding it difficult to find partners,” he said.
A local online publication recently revealed that Facebook was on the verge of introducing an online dating feature called Tinder, aimed at more casual hook-ups. Observers believe that while platforms such as Tinder were not very popular in Zimbabwe, with online dating itself largely taboo, having such a feature on Facebook would likely encourage the wider embracing of online dating services in the country.
Sibiya described social media as a method of communication with huge potential to draw otherwise distant people closer together physically.
He said what was worrisome — beyond all its benefits — was the potential for abuse in terms of dating and courtship.
“The sad issue is that it can be abused and many have been tricked and abused because at the level of social media we are at we do not have efficient checks to get to know whether what we get out of it is genuine or not,” he said.
Sibiya said although there had been cases where people married strangers throughout history, there was need for young people to have some references with regards to those they would want to connect with at an intimate level.
He also stressed the importance of dating in an environment that did not leave young women vulnerable to abuse. “However, we must keep to the old-age precepts of preserving young lives like the dates should never be done in private places,” he said.
“Dating is not marriage, why should people go to private places? Why should people dress seductively on a date? Why should people even touch and kiss on a date?”