About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, July 28, 2014

Social media and its political pathologies

How the internet has led to the growth of radicalism and the erosion of restraints associated with democracy

The growth of social media has created an important avenue for people to express themselves to audiences freely without the restraining hand of the governance structures of traditional media – newspapers, television and radio. These governance structures involve a hierarchy of power through which information is collected, processed (verified and assessed) and finally published and broadcast.

Usually, at the top sits the executive editor and below him/her are editors of all ranks down to the reporter in a hierarchy governed by a set of editorial rules and ethics that ensure every story meets a particular standard. This governance process allows a rigorous sieving of news to establish truth, accuracy, fairness, balance, integrity, context etc.  But as Karl Popper said decades ago, human society is inherently imperfect and a perfect society is impossible to create. So we have to content ourselves with an imperfect society.  So all too often, the governance structure of traditional media has failed us – untrue stories are published or broadcast, unfair and unbalanced attacks are made on individuals and organisations.

However, since this imperfect world is also capable of infinite improvement, we now have social media.

Unfortunately, it appears to be eclipsing the imperfections of traditional media. It has debased journalism and radicalised politics.

Part of the reason for this is that social media is liberated from all forms of governance structures and the restraints they bring to bear on publishing.

Today, one opens a blog, website, twitter or facebook account and immediately they have a publishing or broadcasting platform. There, they accuse without qualm or restraint.   The anarchy of social media has created public spaces that are used to terrorise, bully, blackmail and intimidate.

All unrestrained power is arbitrary power and all arbitrary power is dangerous whether in the hands of a president, a journalist or an individual citizen.

Indeed, the most difficult power to exercise is the power of restraint – to have power to harm someone who irritates and angers you and you choose not to use it.

To understand Uganda’s journalism and politics, one has to understand our discourse – the written and spoken presentation of social cultural context in which we live; in other words, our reality.

Ugandans have deeply entrenched oral traditions. Therefore a lot of our discourse is based on street rumours, bar gossip etc. that we use to convey our messages and meaning. Quite often, these rumours and gossip represent reality. However, they can also be (and are often) used to influence that same reality.

For example, many Ugandans believe, and correctly so, that our government is corrupt. All too often, opposition politicians, religious clerics, and even journalists are bribed by the state to defend the interests of those in power.

But as I have learnt over the years, the widespread recognition of corruption in government creates incentives for both those in power and those out of it to use accusations of corruption to attack rivals, undermine alternative viewpoints etc.

For example, if Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi challenges Museveni for the presidency of NRM, he can easily be accused of corruption and cases would be brought against him in courts of law.

Because he has been involved in government procurement, some contracts he previously negotiated can be brought as evidence of his corruption. The purpose here would not be to necessarily fight corruption but rather to exploit public anxiety about corruption to undermine a political opponent.

Opposition politicians and Uganda’s civil society are not immune to this use (or abuse) of oral discourse to influence reality.

For example, the opposition in Uganda has increasingly gotten radicalised, ever taking an extreme anti-Museveni stance that appeals to a fringe minority of the electorate.   This tragic development has alienated the opposition from the mainstream, thus leaving Museveni to hold the political center and thereby retain a majority.

Increasingly, the more radical an opposition politician sounds in his anti- Museveni rhetoric, like Kyadondo East MP Ibrahim Semuju does, the more likely he is to win in a constituency that is hostile to Museveni. Over time, it is the most rabid critics of Museveni who have come to dominate opposition politics, thus isolating the wider opposition from the political mainstream.

In these circumstances, if one articulates a middle ground vision, they can easily attract hostility from the extreme fringes. Stories will be manufactured from thin air and put on websites, blogs and social media about the time when they committed an alleged wrong, were bribed or compromised. Such discourse is perpetuated by widespread perceptions. If it is believed that President Museveni buys off opponents, many people are likely to take this accusation as true, thus suffocating voices of reason and accommodation even when the intent of the accuser is less to represent reality and more to influence perception.

This is where the role of journalism becomes extremely critical. In traditional media, we can insist on evidence and proof, and at least control personal vendettas and drive the discourse back to the center where moderates can have a fighting chance.

This debate around how social media has liberated us from the traditional dictatorial control of access to large audiences by self-righteous editors and publishers but is creating its own social pathologies is an old one.  It is similar to that in the Athens of the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, especially in the last years of the Peloponnesian War that ended in 404 BC.

Socrates most famous pupil, Plato, complains of how in the Athens of that age, liberty had become anarchy and old standards of conduct and taste, which had protected civilization in manners, morals, and arts were debased by a spreading and triumphant vulgarity.

In Plato’s Republic, a discussion takes place at the home of Cephalus, a wealthy aristocrat. In the group are Glaucon, Adeimantus (both brothers of Plato), and Thrasymachus, an excitable sophist. The wise old man, Socrates, is present and tells them that the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction. The excess of liberty in states or individuals seems to only to pass into slavery. The most aggravated forms of tyranny arise out of the most extreme forms of liberty.

The lesson Socrates teaches is that the first condition of freedom should be its limitation. Every society has norms, values, ethics and morals that guide the actions of individuals within it, which may be reinforced by law and the state.

As the anarchy of social media is right now ascendant, we can only hope that its Platonic wheel swings so far to the extreme that it loses credibility, and forces the discourse to return to the centre.