By Dr Tafataona Mahoso
THE interface between media and society is shifting daily due to rapid changes in digital technology; and the realities of convergence in technology, in content and in markets means that media issues overlap with security issues.
For instance, the portrayal of drug culture and young people is a media issue as much as it is a security issue.
The larger questions constituting our global context
The American Psychological Association recently issued an advisory recommending that parents, guardians or mentors should monitor children’s use of social media very closely, until the children reach 15 years of age.
At present, Zimbabwe lacks the technology to erect a national firewall or a series of gateways to control internet traffic.
Such control would make it possible for the country to compel big entities such as Google to register and enter into agreements with the State on what is to be allowed into Zimbabwe’s cyber space and what is not allowed.
In the absence of such controls, there is a need for an interim national strategy to cope with an open, free for all internet environment.
At a different level, Zimbabwe needs a strategy for navigating the technology wars: first between the US and China; and second, between the US and Europe, on one side, and the Russian Federation, on the other side.
India has somewhat remained neutral, but needs watching, for the purpose of enabling ourselves to understand how our technology acquisition and our media-and-society, media-and-security interfaces will be affected.
The NATO war against Russia over Ukraine is turning out to be a media war as well, exposing Africa’s failure to disengage from Western media hegemony which impacts mindsets among our people.
There is a real need, in terms of daily media practice, to counter-balance the NATO view of the Ukraine conflict with Latin American and Asian views, especially because of parallels being drawn in the US and European media between Ukraine and Taiwan.
Lastly, there are probably huge lessons to be learned from the contrasting cases of Israel and Iran with regard to digital technology, security and the media.
Israel has remained heavily embedded within the US-NATO sphere while Iran has been forced, by the same US-NATO, to remain fiercely non-aligned.
Which model is Zimbabwe pursuing?
The current paradox for Zimbabwe, Africa
At the 2023 Transform Africa Summit held in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, on April 26, Rwandan President Paul Kagame spoke of the need for Africa to ’embrace digital technology’ in its artificial intelligence form in order to enable this continent to ‘leapfrog’ its current underdog status in the global economy and become competitive.
For him, the bottleneck was that at least 60 percent of the African population had no access to ‘smart’ digital gadgets or broadband.
But on the ground, we are still struggling to supply minimum requirements for electric energy.
The Rwandan leader’s lament implied that Africa would match its competitors’ productivity somehow at that point when close to 100 percent of its population would have acquired smart technology.
But waiting for smart gadget saturation of the population before leapfrogging Africa’s underdevelopment did not sound like an original and pro-active strategy.
It was merely a statement of good intentions with no prospect for fulfillment in a reasonable time-frame.
And it was not clear whether or not there was a continental African digitisation framework which took into account global trends and developments as well as economic realities on the ground.
Whatever the complexities of the subject were, it struck me that the Transform Africa Summit was still talking about scarcity of technology and gadgets at a time the philosophers and prophets of digitisation and the future were already regretting the ‘Infoglut’, ‘Data Smog’, social fragmentation and polarisation blamed on the proliferation of the same digital technology and the resulting phenomenon of social media.
It appeared as if Africa’s position in a digitised economy was being defined for it from elsewhere, hence the ambiguous mantra of ’embracing technology’.
Conflicting perspectives on digitisation, AI and the future
Any African strategist looking at ways to obtain optimal benefits from scarce or expensive technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) must take into account the fact that there are bound to be at least five perspectives on the same.
There are views of the visionary, often idealistic creators and designers of the technology who, like Geoffrey Hinton (who just quit Google in order to be free to speak openly against AI abuses) and Chat GP-maker Sam Altman.
These and a few others are surprised, even shocked, at the socially and politically destructive uses to which their inventions are being applied. They feel morally obligated to distance themselves from the harmful consequences of their inventions and even to campaign against the alleged abuses.
There are views of investors and manufacturers interested in at least recovering the costs of their investment, making a profit, gaining market share and achieving dominance against their competitors.
Then there are salespersons, advertisers and middlemen whose duty is to exaggerate wonders of the new gadget (s) and to promote the idea that every individual must have his or her own AI equipment before society can really reap the full benefits.
The work-at-home campaign, once made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic, has also been oversold by salespersons and other publicists.
Then there is the perspective of the policymaker and regulator, who are supposed to represent society at large and its future, but who may be subjected to biased training and even inducement by powerful commercial interests fighting for market share.
And then there are views of end-users which may also vary, depending on the sector where the technology is to be applied.
At the 2023 Transform Africa Summit, it was not clear which of these perspectives the Heads of State and Government had gone to Victoria Falls to represent. They definitely did not speak for the 60 percent of the povo who have no access to ‘smart technology’ and broadband.
And that is a huge challenge for nation building.
Why the different perspectives matter
Perhaps to illustrate why the various perspectives are important and why we should develop our own, I should repeat that there are at least two media and technology wars going on simultaneously which Zimbabwe, in particular, and Africa, in general, cannot afford to ignore.
The first is between the US and China.
The second is between the US and Europe, on one hand, and the Russian Federation, on the other side.
The first war directly affected other countries because it involved US sanctions on components of the same digital gadgets President Kagame was talking about.
Take US sanctions on HUAWEI, for instance.
Zimbabwe’s digitisation project in the media sector was spearheaded by HUAWEI in 2015.
That was before the Trump administration and its escalation of the US-China war over digital technology.
US sanctions on digital technology determine what components we can use in the digital machinery we purchase and the costs we are forced to pay.
According to Interesting Engineering.com for May 6 2023, there is a Chinese report jointly published by China’s National Computer Virus Emergency Response Centre (CVERC) and cybersecurity company ‘360’.
In an Interesting Engineering.com article titled ‘Empire of Hackers’, the report contradicts allegations previously made by the US and its allies during the Trump administration, accusing China of engaging in rampant espionage and theft of intellectual property using digital technology.
Now the Chinese study alleged that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has almost complete global control over the internet and the Internet of Things (IoT): “They have now covered almost all Internet and IoT assets globally, allowing (seeking) control over foreign networks and theft of important sensitive data at any time..Targets of these attacks include critical infrastructure, aerospace, research institutions, oil and petrochemical industries, large internet companies and government agencies in various countries. These attacks can be tracked back to 2011 and have continued….”
According to the Chinese report, the sensitive information from espionage activities is routinely submitted to the US President and to Congress to guide foreign policy and security decisions.
Inclusion of these perspectives is intended here to serve as a warning to those who are fond of singing the sponsored mantra of global ‘free-flow of information’.
Awareness of such perspectives should serve to strengthen our focus on African liberation media as a model.
As analysis of the Rhodesian struggle against African liberation media shows the Rhodesians believed they were ahead and Africans, as usual, were far behind, even in terms of media and communication. But that view was not real, as Julie Frederikse demonstrated in her book ‘None but Ourselves: Masses versus Media in the Making of Zimbabwe, 1982’.
Indeed, the linearist ambition or myth of total imperial control of information and communication systems on a global scale is clearly tempered if not contradicted by recent events.
The outcome of the US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 exposed the bankruptcy of both imperial ambitions and Western journalism in relation to other societies and cultures.
The 2022 US pull-out from Afghanistan exposed the same imperial ambitions and
the Western media frame even worse than Iraq had done.
In the case of Afghanistan, US allies publicly criticised the US Government for failure to know what was happening on the ground in Afghanistan.
Neither the intelligence services nor the media could claim that they served their purpose to inform society or the NATO governments involved about what was going on in Afghanistan.
But the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan knew what was happening.
They knew there would be no NATO-installed liberal democratic government of Afghanistan to take over the country after the pull out of US-NATO forces of occupation.
They knew that the supposed 300 000-strong US-trained Afghan army to replace or displace the Taliban was mostly made up of Taliban infiltrators and proxies.
But Washington and Brussels did not know, after 20 years of occupying that country.
The embedded Western Press also did not know.
So there are serious limits to imperialist ambitions and interventions which small countries such as Zimbabwe should always remember. And the starting point is our own media history.