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Social media – a double-edged sword?

Current Affairs

Social media – a double-edged sword?

The exponential growth of social media has changed the entire informational landscape. While it has enabled ordinary people to challenge the official media and point out abuses, it is also a double-edged sword that can be used to devastating effect to push interested agendas. Rafiq Raji looks at both sides of the social media phenomenon.

“Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here”, US President Donald Trump told the Financial Times in early April. That the most powerful man in the world sees his Twitter account as his most significant communication tool shows how much the world has changed.

In the era of social media, the management of news and communications as a whole will never be the same again. Even African heads of state, usually a conservative bunch, are moving with the times on this one. It is now normal for the continent’s big men to make policy pronouncements via social media. African leaders have
been quick to appreciate the power these platforms wield – and the threat they pose to their often less than democratic rule.

Even the established democracies on the continent, such as South Africa, acknowledge that the unstoppable stream of real and imaginary issues on social media has been making them more accountable.

They are not alone. Governments worldwide are realising that their traditional systems of information manipulation are no longer working. Official sources, including state news agencies, mainstream press, TV and radio are having to scramble to retain credibility in the face of almost instantaneous challenges from social media.

Posters on blogs can also now access a huge amount of information instantly on various search engines such as Google to verify claims made through official channels or by politicians. Donald Trump, for one, has been left smarting almost every time he seems to open his mouth to say anything.

“IT is evolving so fast, and so easily within reach of the average individual, that having been empowered, the African cannot now be so easily fed government propaganda as in the past.”

The knee-jerk reaction, both in Africa and outside the continent, has been to try and control social media and also search engines. China has clamped down on various social media platforms and a handful of countries have even made it illegal to access alternative sources of information. For example, after the coup that brought Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to power in Egypt, a new law made it illegal for journalists to publish “untrue news or data” – anything, according to analysts, that contradicted the official version. Al-Sisi warned: “Don’t listen to anyone but me.”

But IT is evolving so fast, and so easily within reach of the average individual, that having been empowered, the African cannot now be so easily fed government propaganda as in the past.

Access to alternative narratives is so pervasive that many African governments are feeling the heat. The knowledge and skills required to master internet tools are also within reach of most Africans. This is why programmers trained in Lagos can easily be hired by software firms anywhere in the world without even the slightest doubt about their competence.

Unsurprisingly, the authorities’ attempts at regulating social media and the wider internet have been met with creative responses. As soon as authorities block one channel, numerous other channels emerge.

When Egyptian authorities shut down the internet in 2011 as nationwide protests (the January 25 Revolution) halted almost all economic activities, the citizens found ways to circumvent them. They used proxy servers in place of domain name servers blocked by the government.

Since local internet service providers (ISPs) were bound to obey the government’s shutdown order, those who could make long-distance phone calls dialed up ISPs in other countries – the government could not possibly shut down all landline phone access without putting its own national security at risk, surely. And in a show of solidarity, some foreign ISPs offered their services for free. Even so, some governments remain undeterred.

In early March, South Africa’s state security minister, David Mahlobo, revealed the government was considering the regulation of social media. “There is a lot of peddling that is going on,” he asserted, referring to increasing incidents of “fake news” and other unseemly, reputation-damaging activities undertaken by some social media influencers.

But how is that to be curbed without stymieing free speech? Besides, are current laws not encompassing enough to prosecute infractions by social media users and influencers? In a clear change of tack, Mahlobo told the South African parliament later that month that his emphasis is on cybercrimes or crimes that the internet is used to facilitate – like human trafficking, defamation, child pornography and so on.

Put that way, the proposed Cyber Crime and Cyber Security Bill should pass easily. The potential downside is that the powers that the law would vest in the authorities could easily be used by them for worse ends. At least there will be a debate on the issue before the bill is passed. In some African countries, that would not be an option.

However, social media is a powerful tool that can be, and is increasingly being used, to push agendas that can subvert the rule of law, create panic and social disruption, and violence – as we saw in Kenya in 2007/8 and Burundi. More recently, it has also been used to deliberately destroy reputations.

The registered media in most countries is governed by sets of regulations that define its powers, and libel and slander laws to protect the reputation of citizens. It can be taken to task and punitive damages can be awarded to those who feel victimised by the media. In addition, sets of law, order and security legislation ensure, or at least, attempt to ensure that the media acts in a responsible and ethical manner rather than simply pandering to popular sentiment in an attempt to make money.

True, the media in many countries may be tightly controlled by the authorities, may report one-sided news and views, may ignore abuses of rights or demonise the opposition, but such outright control is becoming rarer in even some of the most authoritarian societies.

A pro-government organ that has lost all credibility is about as useful as a bucket with a hole in it. In any case, the economics of publishing in an open and competitive media environment mean that alternatives to the controlled media tend to thrive – and they do so without breaking any laws or publishing “alt-facts”. Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa are proof of that.

Social media, on the other hand, is completely unregulated and often anonymous. Many mimic regulated media to push fake news or to accuse public figures of crimes without offering proof or evidence. Kenya has seen a slew of such outpourings in the run-up to the August general elections, with the result that rumour and conjecture is often mistaken for genuine news – creating a tinderbox situation which can be easily exploited to create division, social unrest and violent clashes.

What is even more worrying is that many anonymous influencers have the tools or can get access to skills that create video clips, where unrelated footage is cleverly juxtaposed with voice-overs to create false “documentaries” to justify agendas.

It is also now possible to cleverly splice voices and statements onto the faces of public leaders to give the impression that those are the actual statements made by them when they may have said the opposite. For example, spoof videos of US President Trump are making the rounds on global social media – and while most can see through them, others take them at face value.

The potential for widespread and deeply damaging social upheaval if such techniques become widespread in Africa is truly frightening.

In summary, the genie of social media is out of the bottle; it cannot be put back and while social media can do a good deal of good by highlighting injustice, it can also be used by unscrupulous people to further their own agendas.

The only way to avoid confusion and be able to tell the truth from the false, is to allow and encourage a free press that works within well-defined regulatory environments, with all the concomitant checks and balances.

To clamp down on the internet, muzzle the press or intimidate journalists immediately confirms that someone somewhere has something to hide. It is not only an own goal but akin to trying to stop the tide from coming in.

A free press assumes that those who have access to it are mature enough to make their own judgments when all the facts are presented to them. By and large, Africans have shown a greater ability to distinguish between the false and true than many in other regions of the world. This approach is far more effective and credible than the tendency of some governments to deploy their own armies of social media bloggers to counter unfavourable mentions.

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