The question of whether social media should be regulated is steadily getting traction on the continent as well as here in Malawi.
Nigerian government is considering it and few weeks ago Yoweri Museni’s government in Uganda shutdown social media during a crucial elections period.
Here at home the issue gained even more attention in the recent weeks following the arrest of Malawi Congress Party (MCP) members who were subsequently charged with treason over a Whatsapp group conversation.
Of course Whatsapp groups are private conversation by the nature of its setting, unlike the likes of Facebook, Twitter etc.
This means the case of banning social media in Uganda is slightly different from that of Malawi. The Malawi issue raises serious issue of people’s privacy and authority’s eavesdropping on an unsuspecting citizens.
On the other hand, the Uganda scenario brings questions of infringement on some of the people’s fundamental freedoms and rights, such as freedom of expression and access to information.
However different these issues may be, its aims are fundamentally the same: limiting the space of unacceptable opinion and instilling fear on people that they are constantly being watched: panopticon. The equivalent of Big Brother idea that those in the Big Brother house always have this sense that they are being watched at all times even when no-one is watching, therefore you must regulate your own behaviour at all times. It is antithesis of democracy and civil liberties – an effective weapon for authoritarianism.
The ironic thing is that among the key features that the social media has brought is the decentralised forms of communication. Social media is social equaliser, giving voice to the voiceless, letting common people whose voice is always represented in the mainstream media; the voice of the people who only make news when they are victims of hunger, domestic violence etc.
Social media has made gatekeepers of information and moral guardians of the society uncomfortable, hence pressing moral panic button: social media is harmful to the society therefore it must be regulated. What these folks will not openly say is the fact that social media actually empowers the powerless with information, means of access to it and means of disseminating it. Surely this can only be good for democracy.
Yet, it is understandable that social media is making groups of individuals, government organisations and others uncomfortable. Changes in society always threaten the status quo – it has always been the case. Those in a position of authority and power always fear change and new developments because they must protect their own privileged positions. Informed society is a very difficult society to manage and govern for those whose primary goal is to steal from the common folk.
It makes sense then when it is government calling for regulation of social media, they do not want decentralised networks of communication; they want the top-down traditional centralised systems of information flow in which they are in total control. Yet, it makes very little sense when it is journalists asking whether social media should be regulated or not. I have come across such conversation on social media. Journalists seriously arguing for social media regulations – something they should all be defending.
Never mind the important question of who is to police the social media. But you must always be careful what you wish for, you might get it. It is a world of possibilities. There is a common defence slogan when journalists and their work is under attack – often from the powers that be: “do not shoot the messenger”. Journalists calling for social media regulation argue that there are a lot of lies and false stories on platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp, yet these platforms are used by people, if anything, the blame lies with the users – not the platform. You do not shoot the messenger, remember?
People lie everyday, all the time, including those in journalism and all the gatekeepers. How do you regulate a lie anyway? There were lies before social media and there will be lies whether social media is regulated or not.
There are laws protecting innocent people from such lies, you do not need to regulate the media.
History of human communication is full of inventions of which social media is part and parcel. Yet, this history tells us that the calls today to regulate social media are not new. We can go as far back as the late 1400s to 1500s when a German tinsmith, Johannes Gutenberg made the printing press a reality. Printing press sent shivers among those who controlled the flow of the information: the elite of the day, mostly the Catholic church.
This was because these elites knew that once common people had access to information, which the printing press made possible, their power would be undermined. Because ordinary folks would be able to demand justice, accountability and question authorities. Simply, the masses would be democratised. There is a reason autocrats today control the flow of information. Where would the world be today if the printing press was stopped in its tracks? Social media is the latter-day printing press. It must be protected.
Why would a journalist call for social media regulation? Surely no journalist would be afraid of enlightened society.
After all, social media is media not meant to replace the existing channels of communications.
If anything journalism in its traditional form of finding news, editing, fact-checking and report is important more than ever in the day of social media because those discussing issues on social media are not professional journalists.
Yet, this does not mean journalists have monopoly over information.
The earlier journalists realise that no-one, including them, has monopoly over information the better.
Instead of calling for social media to be regulated, we should instead be calling for more social media – it is good for democracy.
If we advocate for freedom of expression then we must realise that social media is making this fundamental right a reality. Folks need a forum for that expression.
Social media is internet-based and as of December 31, 2014 internet penetration in Malawi was only 7.0%. The most used social media network is Facebook; it constitutes over 80% of internet users in Malawi. Yet, Facebook has only 4.5% penetration rate.
These statistics suggest that Malawians should be calling for social media growth and not its regulation.
Surely we do not want to choke the social media before we even start. Stop the fear mongering, social media is alright.
*Jimmy Kainja is a Malawian academic | news media & communications | Blogger | Columnist | politica analyst | Patriot | Interested in political & social changes.