By Evans Mushawevato and
AS the curtain comes down on 2017, with the electorate already psyched into election mode for the 2018 polls, there is need to review the role of social media in influencing electoral processes.
Social media and its use has morphed over the years from a medium only associated with casual social interaction, to a lethal weapon in the hands of those with sinister agendas.
Forget the narrative that the internet has had a transformative effect on the economic progress of the African continent; social media has become the latest threat to development.
And it is in election times that social media has become a monster on the continent.
In Zimbabwe for instance, social media used to be taken lightly until the Baba Jukwa era when the pseudo facebook character jolted the authorities to action after they realised its potential to destabilise the country and cause mayhem.
Past experience has shown that social media networks such as facebook, twitter, youtube and weblogs are the main tools now being employed by regime change proponents across the world in mobilising and generating political awareness since the turn of the millennium.
In 2013, when social media was still regarded as a ‘novelty’, characters like Manuel Bagorro, HIFA founder, took some local youths to Serbia for specialised training on how to effect regime change through social media much in the same way the Arab Spring was conducted.
Back then in 2013, Bagorro and his youths were supported to the tune of US$40 524 by Michael Straresinic of Casals and Associates, a regime change outfit which instantly closed shop after being exposed by this publication.
But many might ask: Why has social media suddenly become topical?
When does social media ‘use’ become ‘abuse’?
These are questions that beg answers.
This article will thus delve into the intricacies of social media use and how the West has played a central role in Third World countries in fomenting regime change through unconstitutional means.
Former Western colonialists still bent on controlling and plundering Africa’s resources are effectively using social media to instigate unrest and topple legitimately elected governments on the African continent.
And to make social media effective in effecting regime change, the West has made itself the champion of so-called ‘social-media-rights’, advocating ‘poor’ and ‘oppressed’ Africans to use it as an effective tool.
When it first burst into the limelight at the turn of the millennium, social media was dispelled as a fad that would soon be overtaken by the fast pace of technological advancement.
While it took some time to be adapted by the ‘poorer’ Third World, social media has since gained ground and is fast becoming authoritative, regardless of its criticism of sometimes being the purveyor of fake news, at times even influencing electoral processes.
The dialogue about social media and networking as tools for political mobilisation inching towards regime change and so-called pro-democracy movements have been propelled by individuals such as Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim, who famously said: “If you want to liberate a society, just give them the internet.”
Proponents of this line of thought extol the internet as an effective weapon for the weak and disenfranchised to dislodge authoritarian leaders, resulting in what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof termed the ‘quintessential 21st Century conflict’ in which ‘on one side are government thugs firing bullets…(and) on the other side are young protestors firing tweets’.
Western communication companies, including Portland Communications, have since made well-tailored conclusions that encourage and justify the lawlessness prevalent on social media in Africa.
“African tweeters tend to be more political than tweeters in other continents,” it has concluded.
Providers of the technologies used to facilitate social media have also weighed in supporting the ‘beauty’ of these platforms.
According to Arthur Goldstuck, from Worldwide Worx, a technology market research company: “Social media did not cause the ‘Arab Spring’ but helped to co-ordinate it.”
But this is a blatant lie; social media led to the ‘Arab Spring’ and once thriving nations like Egypt and Libya have been reduced to shells.
Social media-engineered protests and uprisings were popularised initially by little-known Tunis, Mohammed Bouzizi, whose act of setting himself ablaze spread like a veld fire on the internet, sparking a wave of uprisings.
A paper by Madeline Stock titled ‘The Role of Social Media in Political Mobilisation: A Case Study of the January 2011 Egyptian Uprising’ traces how the internet and its tools of social media were heralded as instrumental in facilitating the uprisings.
“We use facebook to schedule the protests, twitter to co-ordinate, and youtube to tell the world,” were the words of an anonymous Cairo activist quoted in Nadine Kassem Chebib and Rabia Minatullah Sohail’s ‘The Reasons Social Media Contributed to the 2011 Egytian Revolution’. (International Journal of Business Research and Management 3, 2011, p139)
“Even before the Arab Spring, the revolutions in Iran and Moldova were eagerly labelled ‘Twitter revolutions’, a phrase the international media has embraced that leads to an impression of a young, hip and tech-savvy generation overthrowing their archaic rulers by monopolising on the ‘digital gap’.” (Storck, The Role of Social Media in Political Mobilisation: A Case Study of the January 2011 Egyptian Uprising, p. 4-5)
Control of social media through instituting laws has been described by these Westerners, with a sinister agenda, as oppression by African governments.
However, the fact is that, in the wrong hands and used by operators influenced by the West’s sinister motive, social media is a dangerous apparatus that can set back nations’ years and years of development. Libyan citizens who had, for all intents and purposes, become a developed nation can testify to this.
What is paramount for African states is to fully appreciate the reach, influence and real dangers of social media and the need to develop effective laws and mechanisms as well as responses to it.
Countries like Gabon and Nigeria have been lambasted for crafting laws to regulate social media, while Zimbabwe has been vilified for mooting the idea.
But in June this year, when 48 people were injured in an attack on London Bridge and Borough Market, UK Prime Minister Theresa May called for the need not just to regulate her country’s but international cyberspace.
Said May: “We need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning. We need to do everything we can at home to reduce the risks of extremism online. (There’s) far too much tolerance of extremism in our country.”
Social media has been used by terrorists to organise attacks in the West and the leaders of these nations are right to call for regulation of the spaces being abused by social media platforms.
Leaders of these platforms were in agreement with the calls for regulation.
“Terrorist content has no place on twitter,” said Nick Pickles, twitter’s head of public policy in the UK.
Google said that it ‘shares the Government’s commitment to ensuring terrorists do not have a voice online’ and said it was working with its partners ‘to tackle these challenging and complex problems’.
Simon Milner, facebook’s director of policy, added that the social media platform works ‘aggressively’ to remove terrorist content.
In May this year, a UK parliamentary committee report alleged that social media firms were prioritising profit over user safety by continuing to host unlawful content and called for ‘meaningful fines’ if the companies did not improve.
“The biggest and richest social media companies are shamefully far from taking sufficient action to tackle illegal and dangerous content,” the report said.
The above serves to illustrate Western double standards.
Africa is experiencing numerous versions of terrorism being crafted and implemented on various platforms of social media yet governments are vilified for wanting to enact laws to curb the abuse.
What is good for the goose is good for the gander.
Early this year, under #tajamuka/sesijikile, Zimbabwe lost property worth thousands of dollars through hooligans who had organised themselves on social media to go on a rampage, looting and destroying property.
On the other hand, fake news which abound on social media is no different from bombs set off by terrorists that have killed people and crippled economies.
For instance, fake news on purported looming ‘shortages’ in the country sent people into what has become known as ‘panic buying’ which threatened to collapse the economy.
According to information technology expert Blessing Makwakwa, it is time African governments become pro-active with regards to controlling and regulating social media.
“Social media has virtually intruded in every aspect of life and governments must understand its appeal and then make every effort to counter it,” said Makwakwa.
“It is critical to do this because social media is sustained by a much larger social, economic and political infrastructure that the news media alone is incapable of dealing with.
“That lag in providing speedy information has created a vacuum which fake news producers are exploiting.
“They don’t have brands or reputations to protect, in fact, where governments are concerned, they are out to destroy them.
“This fake news quickly goes viral and has been a most effective weapon in destabilising governments.”
Governments’ information departments, he said, had to be manned by officers who were techno-savvy.
“Fake news is thriving on consumers’ insatiable appetite for speedy information,” he said.
“We are living in a news ecosystem where urgency trumps the core values of journalism such as accuracy, fact-checking and objectivity, thus it requires that authorities put in place mechanisms that will ensure people quickly get the correct information.”
Beyond doubt, social media is slowly becoming a platform of choice for news people who only go to traditional sources of news for confirmation.
“And the increasing affordable gadgets means that the audience for fake news has also grown because almost everyone now owns a mobile device or has access to one as well as internet connectivity,” said Makwakwa.
Zimbabwe therefore needs to stop treating, with kid gloves, social media users who abuse the platform to cause alarm and despondency.