By Kohadha Roy Ogolla
The government seems to be moving towards blocking most social media outlets in this country, for fear of the use of these networking tools to force an uprising after word went out that the March 4th elections were not free and fair to its entirety.
Make no mistake; social media is a powerful weapon against tyranny. It works great to get a company to admit they are at fault or get a government to admit it is no longer worthy of serving its people. Whatever the point is, when there is a problem, and social media is available to help solve it, the problem usually gets solved. Unfortunately in Kenya the government believes they can stop social media and therefore resist efforts to help their people live better lives. Given what has happened recently in the Middle East, this seems highly unlikely.
Social media is believed to have played a major role in uprisings in North Africa, including the popular movements that forced out Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali of Tunisia and is playing a major role in the Syria uprising where the President Assad’s government has managed to ban any media from accessing the atrocities in the year long civil war.
In Kenya, the story seems to be taking a different turn… There has been a systematic attack on the social media from the traditional media, the church and now the government. All who accuse the social media of spreading ethnic animosity and hate following the contested general elections.
One is struck at how traditional media and organization that use the media seem to be of the mind that “something has to be done,” even as they make efforts of their own to engage with their audiences through social media. It’s almost as though, having lost the means of controlling the message, they would now rather exert some control over social media itself. The multitude of bloggers, forum members and tweeters is too immense, too fragmented to corral, so the implicit threat of legal action is used. The speed at which information can be disseminated means that traditional journalism can find itself playing catch-up, so social media storms are dismissed as incoherent, messy, or simply well-meaning idiots succumbing to mob mentality.
This is a trend that must not be agreed to by any sane human being. I detest with all possible terms. First, because suing somebody who writes something you disagree with is, in most cases, using the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut. Second, because bloggers and readers who also use social media are probably better-informed than some traditional journalists think. Yes, it can seem overwhelming when an item is trending, but people do have the choice as to whether or not to retweet, share or re-blog. Aside from the spammers, nobody has an incentive to hitch their wagon to a topic. It is the ease with which views can be expressed that has changed, not the level of engagement.
I’m not trying to paint the social media white and say it’s all angelic. It is true that the social media in Kenya has been used for nearly all good intentions until the recent backlash in the elections that have seen many Kenyans vent their anger at the elections on social media with opposing sides pulling different directions. It’s true that the Post Election Violence, has gone “digital” with a host of “not so kind statements” that would probably not feel comfortable saying finding their way into the social media posted under pseudo names. But before we turn the attention to the bloodletting on social media, let us ask ourselves where the rain started ‘beating’ us.
In the run up to the 2007 General Elections and in the events that followed in 2007/2008 post election violence, the media was blamed for either being extremely partisan or simply being oblivious of fair and just reporting. An argument that will need another forum to fully exhaust… Fast track to 2013, the media this time round played “by standers” not wanting to be seen as the agents of war as was the case in 2007/2008. Various media houses, through the Media Owners Association and Media Council of Kenya, were forced to sign a Code of Ethics for reporting the election process. Journalists were given stern “warnings” on what to report and what is newsworthy and that is where the plot was lost.
When the tallying process of the presidential elections ran into trouble at the Bomas of Kenya, the media, keeping in touch with Code of Ethics, maintained a buffer zone and questioned no one. The proverbial “see no evil, say no evil” was put to play. Kenya’s saw the numerous discrepancies, but the media said nothing about them and that is where the social media offered a “discussion platform” for the majority. They went on facebook and twitter to share their experiences, their disgruntlement and their hope that all would be well.
All these, even when the traditional kept their composure and urged Kenyans to maintain peace, when there was no need for the call for peace… to resume work, when everyone was busy thinking of life after elections and to accept the results/outcomes of the elections a whooping 72 hours before official results were announced.
Whereas previously, public reaction to a particular newspaper article may have been gauged by the number of letters sent to the editor, today people can express their opinion wherever they like, and others can chime in to voice their agreement or disagreement, without having to set up a petition or letter-writing campaign.
Change can be unsettling, and as the media landscape changes, there are bound to be more debates and arguments about the role and responsibilities of traditional media, social networks, and how people and businesses use them. While I don’t think that the internet is a free utopia where nothing bad ever happens, neither do I see it as a lawless Wild West where chaos reigns. Social networking is largely being, provided you are willing to get involved. It’s those who are determined to keep a hands-off approach that is likely to face the biggest challenges.
In real sense, the fence seating by the traditional media, the church and to the greater extent the government is the main reason why social media is what it is today and attempts to gag it and paint it evil is just but another avenue for the three to run away from the reality of their failures yet again. So before the church, the government and the social media through the goblet the social media direction… Let them first remove the splint in their own eyes before noticing the log in the eyes of social media users.
The writer is a Blogger and Social Justice Activist