On March 2nd, I was one of the panellists in the Elections Dialogue series hosted by the Goethe Institute, in collaboration with Twaweza Communications.
Themed “Social Media and Elections”, the second of these dialogues allowed for a robust debate beyond social media platforms themselves and the hopes, frustrations and fears we pile on them.
I was tasked with a profound question: how does social media fit within existing social systems?
Profound because most discussions around social media assume that the boon and bane we experience or witness due to its existence in our lives are as a result of, and not in spite of, the social media popular in our communities today.
Perhaps it will make sense to proceed with a definition of social media. One way to describe it is to refer to the “interaction of people and the co-creation, sharing, exchanging, modifying, and commenting on content on virtual networks and communities.”
A range of definitions from scholarly assessments is accessible here.
The critical cornerstones of social media are content, contribution, conversation, collaboration, community, and connection, as I discussed in a 2015 paper on social media and journalism. Obviously, these aspects predate the proliferation of social media, but the tools and platforms are now in the hands of many rather than a select few, as was previously the case.
Anyone who is connected can create and produce content and converse with others on these platforms. New ideas of community, such as Kenyans on Twitter or Kilimani Mums, are emerging.
So on one hand, social media are extending existing social systems to the digital world, but on the other, are challenging old systems and forging new systems of conversation, content creation and consumption, community and connecting. All these changes have economic, social, political and civic impacts.
For the most part though, social media and the internet more broadly are replicating offline trends and norms and, in turn creating a new window of insight to our offline realities.
By now, we should all know that while social media facilitates a plurality and even diversity of voices and perspectives, some voices are louder or more influential than others, just as in "offline" societies.
For instance, in a study on social media use during the 2013 elections, we found that journalists and media houses attracted a larger following on popular social media than individuals who are building brands and wielding influence, owing to their online presence.
Furthermore, social media replicate exclusion, much in the same way our social systems predating ICTs do. Women, persons with disabilities, marginalised communities and even older generations are often missing or in smaller numbers on these platforms.
This is due to a number of factors, such as ICT infrastructure roll-out following ‘traditional’ patterns of economic development. There is also income inequality, where the groups above earn less and are therefore less likely to afford the devices and the data bundles that connect us, as well as adverse attitudes and norms that police the place of, say, women in society, creating virtual spaces in which speaking out can be very difficult.
Social media – though not fully representative of society as I have pointed out previously on this column- has grown from the fringes to a mainstream influence in all spheres of society.
You need look no further than the impact of social media on traditional news media. The reactions and opinions reflected on social media influence news coverage heavily these days.
Users are often urged to contribute to news bulletins using hashtags, or on pages run by established media institutions on social media.
In turn, it could be argued that the perspectives that are amplified in traditional media are not only skewed to the cherry-picked opinions off social media, but also compounding exclusion. If you are not visible on these platforms, your perspectives are less likely to shape what is then amplified as the “pulse of the nation”.
FRAGMENTED POCKETS OF SOCIETY
Enter fake news or information propaganda, or even hate speech. It is fundamentally dishonest to blame these phenomena on social media, as is the loud and uncritical rationale put forth by politicians, citizens and analysts alike.
They have always been there, before social media permeated our lives.
What these platforms are doing is amplifying matters that we perhaps haven’t had to confront because they occurred in fragmented pockets of society. Now, we are exposed to a network of the previously disjointed being weaved together through the digital social networks on these platforms.
So to blame social media for these ills is like to hold up a mirror and blame it for the reflection it projects back. To threaten to "crack down on social media" is some equivalent of "shooting the messenger".
In the context of elections, social media is forcing us to acknowledge the ugly wounds and deep-seated social issues that we tuck away after each election cycle, hoping they will go away.
As more and more people get connected, the more we are confronted with the state of our socio-cultural anomalies.
I, on one hand, think this is a necessary, if uncomfortable step to breathe life to cohesion, reconciliation, peace and justice, those things for which we have created institutions and commissions (of inquiry) and framed as events and not processes.
For all the indicators of injustice, problematic and even dangerous biases against each other meted out via social media, we are getting a means to really diagnose the problem, but seem hell-bent on addressing the symptoms rather than the causes.
But social media offers space and agency to challenge, and hopefully start altering the social systems governing our lives, as many of you will have noted.
I refer to discussions on what the role of citizens is in the upcoming election; the challenging of narratives on peaceful elections as if peace can be achieved without justice, and in this case, credible elections.
RESPONSIBILITY TO GUARD
Narratives on gender stereotypes are unwavering on social media because even though fewer women may be connected, those who are exercise their individual and collective agency with vigour, and challenge systems designed to uphold adverse gendered norms.
These are just a few examples of the many ways social media is being appropriated to debunk and deconstruct systems of thinking, doing and being.
So what is the role and place of social media in the upcoming elections? To magnify our society’s social systems, and hopefully provide means to challenge and counter them.
This was discussed by a co-panellist, who articulated our responsibility to guard against reactions by the State to step in and police our use of these platforms.
We cannot afford to keep misdiagnosing the problem. The problem here is not social media. The problem is that we have adverse, unjust social systems.
The work of addressing these issues means that social media has a crucial role to play in putting them forth for us to confront, debate and, ultimately, challenge.
The next dialogue in this series will take place on April 7, 2017 at the National Museum, and will discuss the role of the middle class in Kenya during the elections.
It is bound to be an interesting, if controversial discussion. I, for one, am looking forward to it.