If you listen to most government officials and some mainstream media “purists”, we are in the midst of a serious social media crisis.
But they are not alone. Parents, teachers, religious leaders, law enforcement officials and doctors have also raised concerns for obvious reasons.
Along with the highly commendable ability to easily share information faster, more conveniently, expeditiously and cost-effectively, there is a downside.
Irresponsible talk, hate speech, invasion of privacy, bigotry, immorality, explicit sexual content, fake news, maliciousness, misinformation, unsubstantiated allegations, and outright lies arise .
What many, especially politicians, are now calling for as a solution is “regulation”. It could mean anything to include laws with penalties if users do not play within given parameters to ensure order, decency and “acceptable” moral standards.
The media has come out strongly for what is apparently a selfish cause against a “rival” in the field of communication. Due to the real-time nature of social media messaging, traditional media is now under threat. By the time the newspaper announces the breaking news, it has already been released on social media in its raw form with images and all sorts of embellishments.
It also comes with what in a traditional newsroom would be considered unethical, like graphic photos and unproven claims used to make a point. The publisher is no longer the omniscient viceroy of society who determines what should or should not be read. Because he fears legal action and being shut down, for publishing what cannot be proven, the media house will not yet publish everything it knows about Mutukula’s barefoot shamba boy having access to a smartphone and some data are free to do so.
The established newsroom no longer effectively conducts and guides public debate. He’s also now one of many in the middle of an information jungle struggling to breathe. But most important of all, social media threatens the blood supply of established media houses, namely newspaper sales and advertising space.
As for the politician, his every move is now scrutinized as never before by a myriad of eyes and ears. In the past, when the mainstream media ruled the roost, if the politician wasn’t happy for his excesses to be exposed, he would simply arrest journalists, beat them, sue the media house, blackmail them into denying them revenue ads or shut it down.
Now they have to contend with a torrent called the masses which, unlike mainstream media, is scattered across cyberspace, has no fixed address and, in many cases, no name or reputation to protect. In fact, in some cases, the more offensive they are, the more famous and visible they become.
We live in interesting times where the all-powerful Fourth Estate and the even more authoritarian political class have been united by a new challenge for which they apparently have no tangible panacea.
As Chinua Achebe said “Whenever you see a toad jumping in broad daylight, know that something is after its life.”
Times of crisis have this improbable characteristic. They bring together strange bedfellows. It is now common to hear voices in the media urging the government to “do something” about social media before it is too late. Before we even consider the question of whether regulation will work, we must ask ourselves how we have focused on regulation as an answer.
In times of distress, human nature has a knack for quickly finding answers to challenges it hasn’t fully understood.
In the case of mainstream media, before the idea of regulating social media arises, there must be a critical examination of the content in the future that attracts readers and subscribers. It is not enough to say that social media is popular because it has the license to provide content without limits or limits.
The starting point should be a thorough review of social media content which should be compared to what is served up in our newspapers and on radio/TV. A casual look will show that the newspapers have insisted on giving a lot of space to politics when there is a whole world out there whose world is completely away from politics.
For example, many have settled into the world of sex and sexuality even beyond “acceptable” heterosexual relationships. Then the kind of coitus that prompted President Museveni to warn that the mouth is only for “eating”.
You have dominant issues around relationships, lying, and cheating. The “chic” side or the “negro” side is what some ironically claim to maintain the stability of marriages. The sugar daddy/mommy, the lecturer who gives notes for sex. Abortion. Polygamy and the operation of marital schedules in these arrangements. The new way of discreet and high-end prostitution, for both men and women. The use of crime as a survival strategy.
Many of these issues never get enough space in the newspapers. And when they do, they don’t get to the heart of the matter, capturing the imagination of especially young readers. There must be a concerted effort to creatively put them forward without offending the Salvation Army of moralists.
As for the politician, the idea that everything can be solved by law is a sure sign that we have a generation that carried popular 19th century thinking about strength to meet the challenges of the 21st century brain.
Social media, like mainstream media, generally focuses on contemporary issues. The former, more often than not, may take an informal approach of not proving the allegations or giving a right of reply. But the problem is that they will revolve around the issues that are bothering society at that time.
So if at some point we find ourselves in an economic crisis characterized by high commodity prices, that will dominate the space. If the powers that be are seen as callous and asking for extra budgets and increasing their own allocations while people are starving social media will be tough and bare handed when expressing their displeasure these are not the rules and rules regulations that will stop this.
So before we think about regulating social media, we should think about regulating and reforming policy. The anti-popular behavior of the political class only attracts the wrath of the people who make up the masses on social networks.
Trying to regulate how they feel and react is a futile effort. He died on arrival.
Mr. Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues