The introduction of a prohibitive tax on social media is generally understood to have been intended to reduce social media activity, or what some government political actors refered to as ‘lugambo’ (gossip).
With the role of the social media in the Arab Spring protests on mind, government feared that similar mobilization could be done here – after all, there is enough public fatigue and anger to rally around.
The rate at which government’s bad ‘secrets’ were being leaked and embellished by bloggers such as Tom Voltaire Okwalinga (TVO) and others with huge following, scared them too. It is increasingly becoming very easy for anyone to jump out of their bed and send the entire nation into panic through a Facebook post. The era of censorship and monopoly of news finally met an opposite force.
Before, it was easy to threaten newspapers like The Observer and Daily Monitor when they published what government did not want. Radio stations and TV stations would be closed or warned back into the desired line. Many otherwise important stories died in newsrooms, as many media houses went into self-censorship. But now, everyone of the millions is their own editor and news deliverer on their own social media account.
Armed with their phones and other gadgets, everyone is in the lookout for news that they will be the first to break. A public servant taking a bribe is no longer sure if they are not being recorded. Video footages of police officers torturing suspects and protestors are now in circulation.
What used to be showed on TV once and it disappeared now remains in circulation on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter with more interpretations long after the events occurred.
What is government to do in fear of both uncomfortable facts and fake news? Would it manage to gag them all? Would incarcerating Dr Stella Nyanzi scare the rest into silence or just annoy them into even bolder posts? Would the Computer Misuse Act help?
How about arbitrarily shutting down social media as happened during the 2016 elections? Whereas it provides some temporary relief, it leaves government with a dented image internationally.
Unfortunately, despite all social media’s promises and strengths, government may need not worry much about it anymore. If government cared much about taking the country forward, it would have good reason for being worried about social media – especially in view of many people’s wastage of otherwise productive time and spreading harmful propaganda.
But a government that is preoccupied with keeping itself in power, by hook or crook, may have very little to fear about social media. Here is why.
Social media’s key strengths as well constitute its major weaknesses. As I noted earlier, one of the major political promises of social media is that of expanding democratic space by offering voice to the masses whose perspectives hardly ever find public expression to reach relevant centers of power.
Here, they are able to say what their Members of Parliament, religious leaders, mainstream media, and government altogether wouldn’t speak for them. They also find space for venting out their frustrations and anger and at least get some relief for ‘telling off’ their strong oppressors, call it another ‘weapon of the weak’.
But because there are millions of ‘speakers’ on social media and that are never silent, the arena has come to operate like an anarchical space with a mob of each screaming what they feel like screaming.
Government, therefore, may not worry because whereas such an uncoordinated mob can be injurious, it can hardly ever organize effectively in the same direction, and it is very easy to keep it busy in its wordy confusion while drawing it away from any meaningful effort in discussing things that matter.
Consider too that social media is occupied by individuals from different social classes, of diverse levels of education/knowledge, different cultural/ethnic backgrounds, various religious affiliations, and many other identity lines.
It would take very effective mobilization for such a diverse group to meaningfully speak to each other and organize joint action, even if they all wanted change. It is more like the Tower of Babel in the confusion of tongues that ultimately fails it.
It is not uncommon for people claiming to be fighting for the same cause to be seen engaged in ruthless online wars that leave both of them severely wounded, or the more wounded coming back in disastrous vengeance on another occasion. Whereas it is possible to plant moles and detractors even outside social media, but the effect is more dramatic in a space as chaotic as Facebook.
Meanwhile, a lot of time is being spent on reading random disjointed comments and responding to them, hardly ever finding time to come up with clear strategy. Everything becomes ad hoc, the road becomes the driver. What government does in such a space of confusion where everyone is their own leader is to ensure a constant supply of stories and controversies for aimless debate. Besides, a group of this nature can never avoid conflict.
And, in its diversity, such a space can never run short of gullible and naïve people. Every story will be received for debate, jokes, quarrels, but very few will be concluded here. When you notice that the story is taking a direction that you do not like, throw in another or a nude photo. They will surely abandon the other and jump onto the new one, and another, and another.
Even otherwise good ideas will surely get lost in this constant chaos, and the clock continues ticking. Ultimately, those opposed to government will be kept in reactionary random confusion and no time to plan.
Government is distracted too, as it is engaged in constant spinning and firefighting, away from addressing more serious issues. But this wouldn’t bother them that much, as long as the confusion keeps them in power.
The author is a teacher of philosophy