SOCIAL MEDIA, WARTS AND ALL
By Femi Olugbile
‘Social Media’ is a term used to describe the latter-day phenomenon of digital tools that allow virtually any user to quickly create and share content with the wide public.
Two developments converged within the relatively recent past to create the great possibility and the great monster that has become the social media of today. One is the ever-widening reach of the internet. The other is the demystification and generalization of the smart phone.
In a world population of 7.8 billion, there are 3.5 billion smartphone users. And 2.96 billion people are on social media. In the past ten years, social media has become a huge platform for connecting people and business. It has also become a tool of unprecedented potency in Politics. The most widely used social media platforms are Facebook, with 2.41 billion active users every month, YouTube, with 2 billion users, WhatsApp, with 1.6 billion. In Nigeria, 27 million people have active social media accounts. The most popular platforms are Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Twitter is rapidly advancing.
A lot has been said recently about the dangers of misuse of social media. There is a widely advertised and much-derided effort on the part of some functionaries of government to ensure that social media is ‘regulated’. There have been complaints from some conservative quarters in the country, that it is a force for social discontent.
Social Media as a force has continued to grow all over the world, despite the anxieties of national governments concerning its potential dangers. Egypt, under ‘Pharaoh’ Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, has one of the most repressive governments in Africa. Egyptians use Facebook and WhatsApp more than any other Africans.
The urge for governments to control the narrative concerning news and opinions expressed by citizens is as old as human society itself. Long before the advent of social media, this writer was puzzled during a visit to China to see how a routine newscast from CNN was regularly interrupted by what appeared to be momentary glitches in transmission. This was later followed by the sobering discovery that Chinese government agencies were monitoring the news, and the sound was programmed to ‘disappear’ whenever certain words, including statements critical of China, were uttered. The Chinese public, in reality, were getting a ‘sanitised’ version of CNN news.
China, a country with a ‘liberalised’ economy in a totalitarian political environment, is a dream for every autocrat, and a place where Nigerian officials who wish to ‘control’ the social media would be looking at with wistful eyes.
The mainstreaming of social media in politics exploded with Barack Obama, who ran his first election with an elegant, youth friendly interface on Facebook. His successor, Donald Trump, immediately flipped the coin to reveal the potency of the seamy underside of the Social Media, using his preferred platform of Twitter to plant in the public space day by day, a deluge of falsehoods, exaggerations, conspiracy theories and ‘alternative truth’.
The positive use of social media has spawned endless business opportunities for Nigerians. Many small and medium scale enterprises exist and carry out their commerce almost entirely on Instagram. Dressmakers find they can display their wares and attract customers without paying rent for a physical showroom. Banks conduct business and thrive.
Countries that restrict freedom of speech for citizens are clearly uncomfortable with social media. The very notion of Nigeria ‘regulating’ Social Media is informed by the sort of mindset displayed by a group of misguided soldiers the other day in Ibadan. One took a whip to a lady for ‘indecent dressing’. His mates forcibly applied scissors to the hair of some young men because their hairstyles were ‘indecent’.
Situations of repression, or looming repression, are generally graphically captured in the actions of such ignorant ‘groundmen’ who think they are doing the will of the state. There is no evidence that societies in which strict dress or speech codes operate, for ‘religious’ or political reasons, are more ‘moral’ than others. The evidence is in fact, the opposite.
Many ‘pro-democracy warriors’ on social media, to be sure, are very autocratic in their own ways. People with opposing views are ridiculed, abused, and shamed out of the public space. Anybody who disagrees with them is subjected to a public lynching. The idiocies of the campaign alleging that the President was deceased and the tons of lies disseminated on WhatsApp by COVID19 deniers at the height of the pandemic are just examples of such misdeeds.
People need to recognize the responsibilities of social media. ‘Forwarding’ or ‘sharing’ a message on WhatsApp means the person agrees with the message, takes responsibility for it and can be sued for it. The law itself needs to be nimble, and its protections for people who are defamed need to be tested in court and proven to be true. As in USA, Nigeria may make a case to social media platforms for fact-checking the outputs of people or organisations who regularly disseminate fake news.
Social media users who disagree with any message need to learn to speak out more and not be bullied into silence. That an ‘influencer’ has one million ‘likes’ or one hundred thousand ‘retweets’ does not mean his message is correct, or that he cannot be called out. Bullying can only be mitigated when mainstream users speak out against it.
For government the best weapon against ‘lies’ is ‘the truth’. All too often government spokesmen react to ‘anti-government’ statements on social media by resorting to invective, diatribe and ‘talking down’ to citizens, implying ‘how dare you?’.
The best weapon to bat for a government that is sure it is doing the right thing is a clear and truthful articulation of the facts.
It is a dynamic battle that is going on in all democracies, and that cannot be wished away in Nigeria. To paraphrase Barack Obama, not every problem is a nail, and not every solution is a hammer.
A wise government would leave social media well alone.