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'Social networks are a double-edged sword'


20 August 2009

Paul Mwangi Maina

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As social networking sites such as Facebook, Myspace and Twitter make freedom of speech a reality worldwide, Paul Mwangi Maina from Fahamu Kenya considers its potential impacts on participation in democracy in Africa and beyond.

In Africa, it is mostly the educated young urban individuals who have access to internet services. This group forms a minority of the population with the majority having little or no access.

SNS Collage
Image credits: Google Images / Social Networking Sites

Young people form the core of the population (50 per cent) in most African countries, with most of them being semi-literate, and those who are literate being the unemployed poor. The other half of the population comprise of the elderly, children and a small middle-aged population.

Basically, what this means is that a small percentage of the population in Africa is engaging actively in daily debate that the rest of the population is not involved in. These people are actually forming their own agenda for their countries without the rest knowing. The consequences of this are clear, countries are becoming more polarised (moving in two different directions), without either side realising it.

The end result of such a situation especially after an election is inevitable - disputes and conflict. For in Africa, it is an exception rather than the rule that a contestant accepts defeat, given that vote rigging occurs regularly.

According to data from internet world statistics, Africa with 14 per cent of the world population, only makes up 3.4 per cent of the total internet users. Internet penetration is only 5.6 per cent compared to an average of 23.8 per cent penetration in the rest of the world. However growth in usage for the period between 2000 and 2008 has been three times that of the rest of the world at 1100 per cent. We are catching up fast!

The fibre optic cable has just landed in the East African coast and it is expected that this development will accelerate growth in the information communication and technology (ICT) sector. Personal computers and mobile phones are getting cheaper, faster and more reliable. Statistics also show phenomenal growth in the use of social networking sites in Africa. For example, South Africa is among the top ten leading countries in international growth of Facebook users.

This spectacular growth is in general good news for the continent. Communication is now cheaper, reliable and more efficient. In addition, business opportunities are opening up for innovative thinkers due to the increased use of ICT. However there is also a darker side to this new phenomenon.

During the 2007 contested elections in Kenya, there was a temporary local news blackout in the mainstream media. Since most of the people in urban centres and conflict hot zones could not move freely they mainly communicated using their mobile phones by 'forwarding' messages that they had received from either family, friends or anonymously.

'Citizen journalism' is the name of this kind of communication - 'the concept of members of the public playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information'. Unfortunately what they were exchanging were hate messages, actually adding more wood to the fire.

Currently technology is moving a step further. Individuals can now organise themselves into ISN groups that are tribal/ethnic, religious or political in nature and are exclusive. These groups provide a secure and private space for potentially negative values to foster and simmer, waiting for a spark or a crisis to explode. With the kind of speed at which information moves on the web, when that spark actually comes - and it will - it'll be too late for anyone to intervene.

It is difficult to ascertain if the people who are protesting in Iran represent the views of the majority as only a fraction of Iranians use the Internet regularly.

In the African continent the Internet has been relatively free of interference from governments, unlike Iran, China and other countries, where bloggers and other internet users have faced persecution. This could be as a result of the poor penetration of the service. However with rapid growth being witnessed, the full impact of social networks will be felt sooner rather than later.

Content in the social media should not be left unmonitored, it should not be left for anyone and everyone to create, develop, control all in the name of 'citizen journalism'. This is not safe.

In my opinion, 'citizens' are not capable of monitoring themselves without some form of authority. How possible it is to monitor social sites is a subject for another paper. Iran and China have tried censorship and failed miserably.

Whatever the approach used should be broad-based and involve primarily the users themselves. However, it would be a fallacy to believe that there can be freedom without responsibility. Even the mainstream media is subject to libel and other restrictions.

Paul Mwangi Maina is an intern with Fahamu's Kenya office. The article has been shortened.

 
Source : afrika.no

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