Social media is a double-edged tool – it lends itself to abuse and idiocy but it also opens up the world and channels public rage. It is a powerful tool in the hands of the oppressed. Writes Winnie Odinga.
The classic novel, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, aka ‘The African Secondary School Bible’ is full of life lessons for all.
The gist of the story is that the protagonist, Okonkwo, a leader and warrior in the Igbo tribe, spends his life waging battles to gain a higher status in the society. He despised his father who had been a lazy drunk and he tries to overcome the shame of his father by being unaffectionate, brutish, stubborn, irrational and violent.
There is an African saying that goes, anger and madness are brothers. For the past six weeks or so I’ve been traveling both within the continent and without. As soon as I land in any country I immediately ask for wifi access to get online.
I want to check my messages of course but I always enjoy clicking the ‘Trends’ tab on Twitter to see what people in a particular country are into and what’s hot. (Here is a friendly travel tip: Trends bring you up to date with current affairs in a country and locals generally appreciate you are in the know.)
Lately during my travels I’ve been noticing a trend in trends. Social media is being used more and more as an avenue to express societal anger. Whether people are complaining about a failing system of government, an unjust arrest, organising for a protest, outing a bad product, complaining about poor service delivery, or the bottomless hell that is African traffic, the weapon of choice for expression is the internet.
This has become so effective that we now know that if someone TYPES IN ALL CAPS, they are essentially yelling. You can actually feel the fury through your screen.
This ad-hoc study is in no way is the only litmus test for societal perception but it gives you a quick preview.
As I sift through my timeline while waiting (you always seem to be waiting in Africa…), I find myself asking, when did things get this bad? I used to read about people getting anxiety online and I never quite understood why. If you are being bullied online, then simply get offline. However the world doesn’t quite allow things to happen that easily does it?
While some of us of a certain age can recall a world without the internet or other forms of social media, more and more young people are born into a world where the social media is as much a necessity as food and shelter.
Blessing and a curse
We used to know how to socialise without using our phones, but they do not. Therefore, just like a fiend that needs his fix, they are hooked more than they know.
This mass access to everyone at any time in the world is a blessing and a curse. There is the swift transfer of knowledge and information and similarly, the transfer of insults, delinquency and sometimes, idiocy.
Imagine a society with no laws, no policing, no consequences. It would be pure bliss for some, but utter chaos for others.
Now take this imaginary world and realise that you are already living in it online.
A lawless community?
Anyone can sign up to be online, there is no police clearance report needed. The online community is lawless and people do whatever the heck they want.
After a five-year hiatus, I logged back into Twitter and have swiftly learned the hard way of the perils of writing an easily misconstrued tweet. Users and trolls from every corner of the earth will come at you, like the Salem witch-hunt!
Before you can explain yourself, the mob will have lifted you shoulder-high, made you trend at number one and will hurl all manner of insults at you, your mother, your education (or lack thereof) – all before you’ve finished your morning coffee.
But why is everyone so damn angry?
In the last article I spoke of the despair that African youths feel over the lack of job opportunities, driving some, albeit jokingly, to consider ‘terrorism’ as a viable alternative to the boredom and desperation. Today I still want to talk about the reason for the angry mob.
When things happen in the dark, only the rats know. When society was living in an age of African strong men, a lot of mega-looting and corruption took place and people weren’t in the know. When there was any form of protest, people would learn about it through censored news or through stories. They could not be angry with the system because at no point did they ever fully understand it.
But you see, just like Okonkwo, who despised and resented his lazy father’s wasteful ways, society today is very much aware of the faults of its leadership. Our leadership is like Okonkwo’s father.
Societal dissatisfaction, combined with the feeling of constant neglect by government, has led to the open exchange of information, which has led the pressure pot to blow its lid.
Lids blow in many ways – sometimes there are street protests, sit-ins, walk-ins, running battles but other ways are quieter and perhaps even more deadly. There are silent revolutions going on online every day.
It was Omar Bashir’s folly to believe that he could employ the same old-school tactics on new-wave anger. It will also be the downfall of a lot of other African kingpins.
In Africa, every family is one disease away from poverty. The cost of healthcare is debilitating and corruption that was once somewhat accepted as ‘normal’ has become untenable for the society. Africans are feeling the blow of stagnation.
Many countries have had the exact same infrastructure since independence. While they see a few thriving, there is little to no hope of upward social mobility for the masses. A friend of mine was telling me about what he termed slum dynasties. Families, five generations deep, living hand to mouth; young men unable to afford dates, let alone support families; young people told to study hard, go to school, get good grades, as there’s a job waiting – but they are still waiting. Families going bankrupt servicing loans that they took out to pay school fees.
I could go on and on about causes of anger but the main cause is that with more and more access to the rest of the world, Africans are alive to the fact that their system has played them.
They can see and hear and experience how other people live, how they enjoy rights, how they hold their governments to account, how they are encouraged to express themselves creatively or innovate; how they are free from hunger and curable diseases, how they insist the government works for them and not the other way round.
They can not only see all this but interact with others all over the world in real time and realise that they are no different in their desires and aspirations than others ‘on the other side’. And they can compare and contrast their lot and exchange notes and think collectively. With that small instrument in their hands, they can mobilise thousands – as Bashir and Bouteflika have found out.
There are lessons to be learnt from this by our leaders. Unless our leaders act like leaders rather than robber barons, the virtual streets will be too narrow for the angry mob.