The advent of social media at face value, should be a blessing and a rod of enlightenment. Before social media, the manufacturing, dissemination and consumption of information was totally controlled by the few. Those were the days when whole countries, societies, and communities were firmly kept in hypnotic paralysis. Those media giants, in cohort with governments ensured that their policies, visions, and agendas were gift wrapped in propaganda. During the cold war among the socialists, the capitalists and the communists, governments designated specific machinery to churn out misinformation and disinformation in their boatloads. Information was classed as propaganda. Attempt to disprove such propaganda were summarily dismissed by the governments as conspiracy theories. Interestingly, such theories were hardly countered with any explanations or otherwise. Meanwhile, the “conspiracy theories” remain plausibly convincing.
So social media is a break from the shackles of manufactured media and a Eureka moment for free speech. It provides platforms where the ordinary man can express his/opinion and be heard. This is free speech actualised in its full glory and entirety. With growing use came alternative “facts” which gave birth to “fake news”. The media has gone full circle with Propaganda, re-christened as “fake news”. In most developed countries, trolls and bots have become the currency of communication on the media stock exchange market. The interest, mass awareness and participation in politics has grown beyond expectation. Sierra Leoneans have become much more in tune with the politics of the nation, which to all intents and purposes should be a good thing. But is it?
In today’s societies, much of the political prowess and the battle for hearts and minds is determined by keyboards. With Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Tik Tok and other media platforms taking over our daily lives, public opinion is now at the mercy of the “influencers”. Social media is now the thermometer of society and barometer of public opinion. Trials by media are and media courts are sprouting up everywhere. Despite all the benefits, advantages and goodies you can attach to social media, TRUTH has become the first casualty. With a growing penchant to grab a fifteen-minute fame or notoriety, attention or relevance in the limelight, LIES have become the palm oil with which the media is eaten. Interestingly, when we tell a lie to the government, it’s a crime and its called felony. But when the government tells a lie, it’s called Politics.
Political parties and organisations have become increasingly reliant on social media to connect with the public and now make up for 90% of their DNA. The public’s insatiable appetite to consume, especially the sensationalised news provides a ready-made market. Whether such menus are palatable or digestible with any gastronomic benefits is another matter. But it is the level of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, fake news and alternative truths that is threatening the very concept of free speech. The threats to the security, peace and stability of societies and communities cannot be overemphasised. The notion, “never under estimate the power of stupid people in large groups” comes to mind.
The rising threats to society from social media has not been lost on their proprietors. A new breed of traffic police is sprouting everywhere to police and monitor their information highways. We now have media abattoirs where information is killed, quarantined, sanitised or incinerated as “FACT CHECK”. Accounts are now blocked, frozen, starred or removed as media sanitary pads, to denote false information. WhatsApp is limiting the number of recipients you can forward a post at any given time, to reduce congestion of information or highlight factually incorrect material; so, they say.
So, who decides what is fact and what is correct? How free is free speech when your speech is not freely given. In effect, we are slowly witnessing free speech in suicidal mode. Free speech is eating itself up, because we seem to “demand freedom of speech as a compensation for freedom of thought; which we seldom use “(Soren Kierkegaard). Censorship is now called “fact check”. Unfortunately, this is one luxury that African countries can ill afford at present. Now imagine the inherent dangers of an unadulterated and unchecked media highway, and you begin to see the threat to peace and stability in our societies today. The SLPP and APC find themselves on the back foot, taking turns to release reams of press releases to refute or counter “false” or negative news.
Politics used to be about what good political parties can do for there people. With the politics of hate and fear, they now compete in giving testimonials on how bad the other is. We now face the potential, where one click is enough to set communities and societies against one another; or even the world alight. A post on WhatsApp is all it takes to set brothers against brothers, faiths against faiths and tribes against tribes. If we are to look across the pond, we get a sense of how the sermon of hate and fear is destroying the once great societies of the world; piece by piece.
Through the power of twitter and other social media platforms, Donald Trump has used his first term in office, to ply in hate, division and fear. The America that used to be everyone’s desired second home of choice is slowly becoming a shattered society, drunk with hate, fear, paranoia, distrust, etc. Once touted as the greatest country on earth, Trump and his enablers have exploited the unconscious bias and the deep-seated underbelly of racism, to dismantle the very foundations that made this country great and made it free as the land of opportunity in unity.
Picture this: the greatest nation on earth has been paralysed, thanks to a pandemic. With the worst cases and highest deaths from the COVID pandemic, you need no further proof of what hate, and fear can do to society. Even when faced with a common enemy, the vision to come together as one, has been blurred by division, hate, fear, suspicion etc. Because of these, even its very constitution is now being prostituted to the highest punter. The great and mighty Unites States of America is no longer untied by its flag, cultures, beliefs and dreams, but stands to disintegrate on the alter of fear and hate. Here is a country that is so divided that it cannot come together to fight a common enemy; all thanks to the division and the politics of hate. Let’s and see what will happen in the USA after November 3rd, irrespective of who wins the presidential elections.
Is this what we want for our country? In the recent past, we have noticed a similar phenomenon, with our two political parties locked in the battle for hearts and minds. But in doing so, some people have taken to social media, posting gruesome images of atrocities from far away countries at war, being attributed to Sierra Leone. We have heard hours and hours of audio clips from self anointed leaders of certain political groups, threatening, inciting war, unrest, revenge and catastrophising life in our country. What do you want that Mende wife to tell her Temne husband, or that Creole boy to tell his Limba classmate? So, a Kono man should no longer marry a Madingo girl, or a Fullah girl a Koranko boy?
With all the joys of social media, are we able to self censor for the common good? The ability to monitor social media is proving very tasking for low- or middle-income economies. In response, some countries are resorting to shutting down internet connections in a blanket approach. Others are criminalising free speech as “hate speech”. Is that what Sierra Leone needs; especially after President Bio has at least, decriminalised parts of the long-awaited Public Order Act 1965? With attention seeking becoming the new addiction, can we find more useful ways to gain relevance? Social media should help us connect, educate entertain rather than disconnect and hate. There can be no greater show of cowardice than sending out faceless and nameless messages of hate. So, before you post a message of hate, division or otherwise, please look at the USA, and see what the politics of hate has done to a once great, if not the greatest country. As for our politicians, be the change and person you want us to be.
People used to say “don’t believe EVERYTHING you read. If this trend continues, social media will soon symbolise lies. WhatsApp and other forms will become synonyms for unreliability and lies. That will be self destructive, and it will be a question of “Don’t believe ANYTHING you read, instead of don’t believe EVERYTHING you read. Perhaps we would all live happily ever after.
May be, just may be, if we tell some people that the brain is an app, they will start using it……. wisely.
Don’t forget to turn the lights off when you leave the room.