Witchcraft, the Incivility of Internet Fraudsters, and Imagery of Scammers’ Abused Bodies in Cameroon

Introduction

Denying and debunking witchcraft, as some people do, does not mean witchcraft beliefs and practices do not have real world consequences. Anthropologists usually do not get into the cat and mouse game of whether or not witchcraft exists. They are interested in the ideological functions, such as witchcraft being a form of social control; it cautions people to conform to the expectations of the society. This article pulls together some of the common witchcraft narratives used to explain the figure of scammers or internet fraudsters. Additionally, it delves into the public conversations about the various ways scammers abuse their bodies, cautioning people of dire consequences of engaging in digital money swindle. First, I look at the internet infrastructure that provides scammers the opportunity to interact with their victims.

Social Media and digital identities

Smartphones and social media platforms are driving business, sociality, and politics in unprecedented ways despite fears and undertones that they disrupt some normality. Social media disrupting co-local sociality and the media platforms reducing attention span are commonly cited negative aspects of these technologies. To further understand this, one must look at the wizardry of digital media identities and they ways in which they link up social media users, including scammers.

Our phone numbers and social media accounts are our gateway to the connected world. Smartphones and social media platforms contain our biosocial information, including date and place of birth, gender, location, emails, phone numbers, etc. All of these constitute our identities and are a means for others to identify us individually.  The media identities facilitate the connective and collective aspects of our lives. For example, co-locality is no longer a necessary precondition for the construction of social reality, argue Couldry and Hepp in The Mediated Construction of Reality.

Therefore, with our digital identities, we can chose to be readily available and reachable, be it in connection to work, family, friends, neighborhood, alumni, etc. However, this comes with risks, threats, and dangers as hackers and scammers can target, humiliate, and cause distress to others through these digital identities. We see this in revenge porn and in situations where hackers reveal secret information about renowned people. In extreme instances, social media information miners manipulate people through these identities, as was the case with Cambridge Analytica a couple of years back.

On the In/civil Digital Space

With digital identities, we connect to others, whether or not we know them and this is precisely where internet fraudsters come into the wider picture. Hackers are capable of compromising people’s digital identities. Scammers can infiltrate social media platforms, pose as either friends or acquaintance and then swindle money from unsuspecting individuals. These online actors act from the inside thanks to their digital identities and because they share a common communication infrastructure with their victims.

Why one would consider the digital space uncivil is because some people, such as scammers, do not play by the rules of acceptable public behavior. Ideally, the digital space should be a civil arena where people interact to achieve their individual and collective goals. The civility here is not necessarily in terms of smooth interactions or that such interactions are devoid of quarrels, contentions, and disagreements. It is more about observing norms of acceptable public behavior. People may not know one another when they meet in public but are civilized enough to tolerate each other.

Society considers the activities of scammers and hackers uncivil because they take advantage of the shared communication infrastructure to defraud other online actors. In Africa, partly because of its disruptive nature and the fact that scamming crosses lines of civility, people are finding unconventional ways to explain the fraudsters’ success and most of this draws from witchcraft.

Witchcraft and Scammers’ Abused Bodies

One of the very first things you hear about scammers is that they use medicine and witchcraft to subdue or manipulate their victims. In fact, this line of thinking is solidly established in situations where white people, believed to be very intelligent, fall prey to these scams, argues Divine Fuh, when he writes about Europeans buying inexistent Chihuahua from people based in Bamenda, Cameroon.  The more interesting, perhaps cautionary, trajectory of the witchcraft imaginary is when it concerns the bodies of the swindlers. To get rich and wealthy, the scammers must abuse these bodies and that of others, in unimaginable ways.

It is difficult to establish a precise list of these bodily discomforts that scammers must endure. The gendered nature of these abuses often targeting young male scammers, tell how they go naked in public, sacrifice their fertility, engage in sodomy and orgiastic sex, eat feces, and have sex with a haggard old woman (sometimes it is either bestiality or sex with biological family members). These rumors also tell of the harm that witchcraft practices can do to a normal body, conveying the message that scammers live in distress. For example, because of the pacts they sign with witches, it is just a matter of time before their bodies disintegrate and they die young. Sociological factors and risks never feature in these explanations. Could they die because of stress, suicide or poisoning or other risky behavior such as binge drinking or driving under influence? It is all about their witchcraft practices that demand they dishonor their bodies and that of others.

To understand some of these beliefs, it is necessary to look at the scammers’ sources of wealth within the African context. In many African societies, a person’s source of income and wealth must be visible. People suspect sudden and unexplained wealth. Witchcraft beliefs, and the belief that dead people transform into zombies and then work from the underworld for the living human who sacrificed them for purposes of self-enrichment, constitute part of the explanation of sudden riches. In other instances, they portray these bodies as lacking essences; sacrificing fertility means the bodies cannot even reproduce in a context where an adult’s personhood is more complete when s/he has children. In the end, the message is clear: if these scammers are your role model, if you want to emulate them, be sure that you would not earn the respect of the society.

Conclusion: Cautionary Anecdotes

Media scholars say we appreciate media more when they malfunction or when people deploy them in unconventional ways. Scamming reminds society of the unwanted and unexpected dimensions of the media technologies. Society cannot stop the young from engaging in the enticing online money fraud. However, there are ways in which society is dramatizing the consequences of scamming for impatient young people. The mystical explanations of scammer’s sudden wealth make sense in a milieu where they display success amidst poverty, strife, and pain. The imaginations of witchcraft are in fact cautionary tales about the dangers of abusing digital space, the risks of sudden riches, and the virtues of patience.

Dr. Primus Tazanu
Dr. Primus M. Tazanu
Research Fellow in Governance | + posts

Dr Primus M. Tazanu is a Research Fellow in Governance at the Nkafu Policy Institute .He is equally a lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Buea, Cameroon. Primus holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Freiburg, Germany

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