Social media has turned us into brutish caveman

At the instigation of the Electoral Commission in Uganda, the East African country, through the Uganda Communications Commission, suspended Internet services from February 18, 2016 to February 21 in order to “insulate” presidential elections that were held on February 18.

Over the past 14 years, especially since the founding of social networks such as Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006), the miracle of social media has been its ability to usurp some of the functions of corporate mass media, melt sovereign borders and make the ordinary man — through the conduit provided by the Internet — a publisher of sorts.

More so, with advances in mobile telephony, it now takes a smartphone — in all its modern iterations, be it a tablet or phablet (a cross-breed between a phone and a tablet) — a computer and an internet connection to reach any part of the world.

Being given the power to communicate, share pictures and videos in real-time has been, and still is, quite a surreal experience.

It actually felt and feels like magic.

Social media was like the Garden of Eden, if ever it can be imagined.

But there is never quite a perfect world: curious netizens (users of the Internet) gradually discovered that the Internet was no-man’s land, it answers to no one and guarantees absolute freedoms – a real paradise for trolls.

Unlike in the real world, where societal norms and values force individuals to act and behave in a responsible manner most of the times, the anonymity of the net has given netizens the camouflage and perfect bunkers from which to launch scathing attacks on supposed enemies.

And the supposed impunity that comes even after the most despicable behaviour means no one is spared the rod, even princes, heads of state, prime ministers, religious leaders and children have found themselves on the bitter, receiving end of attacks social media.

Both developed and developing countries are grappling with how to establish and enforce acceptable norms, especially during key national events and, most particularly, during the election cycle.

It is during such emotive events that robust debate easily degenerates into toxic engagements and reasonable discussions give way to dehumanising spats.

Just as in other African countries, Zimbabwe is trying to find how social media is likely to shape the local body politic ahead of the July 30 harmonised elections, especially given some of the unsettling incidents that have happened so far.

Fake news, contrived videos and documents have become handy weapons for individuals that are making calculated attacks on key national institutions.

As with any powerful instrument, social media is now being weaponised to divide more than it unites; destroy more than it builds; and to dehumanise more than it humanises.

But driving a wedge among the people in order to push selfish and parochial sectarian interests is increasingly becoming a national security issue.

Accosting reality and giving it a damaging spin, as social media is most often wont to do, is essentially sowing a wind in order to harvest, either wittingly or unwittingly, a whirlwind.

If the level of toxicity and coarseness in debates about the forthcoming elections and political preferences continue to increase in scale as we approach the plebiscite, especially on social media, one shudders to think what will happen during voting day and after the elections.

Ironically, while social media platforms — which ride on the dynamism of technology — should be taking us to the future, through unrestrained abuse, they are taking us back to the primitive ages, where one who can wield the biggest stick or the largest stone ultimately carries the day.

Unfortunately, most African countries, fearing the potentially deleterious impact that an unhinged social media would have had on their elections, have tended to disproportionately respond by suspending Internet services during elections.

At the instigation of the Electoral Commission in Uganda, the East African country, through the Uganda Communications Commission, suspended Internet services from February 18, 2016 to February 21 in order to “insulate” presidential elections that were held on February 18.

Similarly, later in the same year, on August 31, the Gabonese government suspended Internet services after the announcement of contentious presidential results, fearing that these would be conveniently used to destabilise the state.

Obligingly, Gabon Telecom — the country’s largest telecom company, which routes 91 percent of the country’s IP addresses — shut down the Internet.

Over the years, similar incidences have been recorded in African Union member states such as Burundi, Egypt, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Local industry regulator, Postal Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz), and the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) have since indicated that Internet services will not be cut during the coming elections, which is quite comforting, but the need for an overarching legislative framework that is meant to guarantee engagements — no matter how oppositional and robust they are — remains civil and dignified.

Regulators in the United States of America (USA), where the jury is still out on how intrusive social media behaviour influenced the election of Donald Trump, is considering counter-measures to increasingly rein in social media activities that pose a threat to its key national institutions.

Similarly in the UK, which prides itself of having one of the oldest constitutional democracies, is in the process of crafting the Data Protection Bill that is designed to dial back gratuitous abuse, immoral content and human rights abuses on social media.

Most notably, a survey that was conducted by the UK last year found out that four out of 10 people had experienced abuse online, while 60 percent had seen inappropriate content.

So scathing and pervasive has been the abuse on social media that even the UK’s Digital Minister, Margot James, indicated on May 20 this year that she had also received abuse and reported it to the police.

“It’s not just (abuse) of parliamentarians, it’s any woman in public life, and some of our famous broadcasters have had the most terrible abuse online, which is completely unacceptable — if it’s not illegal, it should be and I think some of it is,” she said.

Perhaps the most important insight on how bad the abuse on social media had become is contained in a speech by UK Prime Minister Mrs Theresa May on “The Standards of Public Life” that was made on February 7, 2018 in Manchester.

“Participants in local and national public life — from candidates and elected representatives to campaigners, journalists and commentators — have to contend with regular and sustained abuse.

“Often this takes the form of overt intimidation. Social media and digital communication — which in themselves can and should be forces for good in our democracy — are being exploited and abused, often anonymously.”

“British democracy has always been robust and oppositional. But a line is crossed when disagreement mutates into intimidation. When putting across your point of view becomes trying to exclude and intimidate those with whom you disagree. . .

“And it is online where some of the most troubling behaviour now occurs,” said Mrs May.

She added: “For while there is much to celebrate, I worry that our public debate today is coarsening. That for some it is becoming harder to disagree, without also demeaning opposing viewpoints in the process. I believe that all of us — individuals, governments, and media old and new — must accept our responsibility to help sustain a genuinely pluralistic public debate. . .

“But today, the ideal of a truly plural and open public sphere where everyone can take part is in danger. A tone of bitterness and aggression has entered into our public debate. In public life, and increasingly in private conversations too, it is becoming harder and harder to conduct any political discussion, on any issue, without it descending into tribalism and rancour.”

Powerful words indeed.

In addition to establishing a governance framework for social media, there is also desperate need to repair the mainstream media to ensure that is becomes a reliable source of information for many, which minimises reliance on toxic fake news from unofficial news sources.

The media has the potential to shape and reshape social conventions and norms for the greater good.

Imagine if some of the toxic and divisive news and narratives, which are given currency on social media where to be given prominence in the mainstream media.

Some of the trash-talking, hate speech and vitriol — which mainstream media has traditionally and dutifully been keeping away from society, but, conversely, which social media has been irresponsibly driving — cannot be allowed to find voice in any self-respecting media.

Imagine if the hate speech that we continue to hear on social media was to become the staple on mainstream media. God forbid!

For a country that came through a bitter, blood-letting armed struggle to gain independence, including recent crises, it should not be lost that just like war, no one wins from sowing conflict and division.

We have a responsibility, all of us — however passionate and robust our viewpoints might be — to meaningfully and peacefully shape how we want our future to be.

We can definitely do better, but for now, social media has made us brutish caveman.

 

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  • Darlington Musarurwa

    Sad that you have to interpret what is supposed to be a premise for vibrant debate into a parachocial and tribal prism. For the record, these are my views and mine alone,
    and I am prepared to defend them to the hilt. Some of use are self-respecting and beyond the clutches of anyone. I am sure you might have listened to Obama’s lecture today; he raised the same concerns about social media. Regulation does not connote authoritarianism; it only seeks to guarantee a modicum of civility. Not anyone who doesn’t think like you, is Zanu-PF, hope you understand that

  • Darlington Musarurwa

    Sorry,
    I don’t need to do anything, and this doesn’t have anything to do with me. I quote Theresa May’s view, which I also share, and today, Obama – at the Nelson Mandela lecture – also expressed his concern how social media has become a conduit of hate speech. Further, I am not criticising social media, I am criticising conduct on social media. The debate is how do we make engagements on social media civil

  • Darlington Musarurwa

    Unfortunately, you are second-guessing the premise of my argument. The problem isn’t socia media; it is the conduct on social media, which is unhinged or untethered to any societal, civil norms. Your attempt to ascribe a particular political tribe on me just because our viewpoints are different is also most unfortunate. If you watched Obama’s lecture today, he raised the same concerns as the ones I am raising in this article. Your bigoted views won’t help much. This does not have anything to do with me; it has everything to do with being civil, a point that I am crucially stressing, but which is clearly alien to you. Learn to have vibrant debates without sounding patronising and seemingly clever-than-half, which, judging by your tone, your are clearly not. Shame. It’s people like you who give social media a bad name