What a Social Media shutdown (on elections day) means for the business of politics

On Thursday, 26th June, the Inspector General of Police announced that the Police Service was considering blocking social media across the country come November 7. This has sparked a lot of interesting debates in the media, both traditional and digital. Until the recent remarks of the IGP most of us have taken using Social Media to express our opinions as a natural right. From WhatsApp to Twitter we speak freely about our opinions on issues bordering on religion, politics, entertainment, the economy and even Bukom Banku’s fleshness!

This is not the first time governments are censoring social media or shutting the internet down altogether (see figure 1).  In June 2009, the Chinese government blocked some Social Media sites. The censorship was believed to keep things from getting too rowdy on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. North Korea has created its own internal internet that does not connect to the wider worldwide web. “But this doesn’t seem to bother many who, not knowing any different, enjoy the limited freedoms offered to them by the country’s intranet, Kwangmyong, which appears to be mostly used to post birthday messages” – www.indexoncensorship.org.  In 2010, Facebook was shutdown in Bangladesh. This was after satirical images of the prophet Muhammad, along with some of the country’s leaders were posted on the platform. The ban lasted for a week.

Censoring Social Media in Africa during elections
Figure 1 – Some countries and the Social Networks they have censored. Source: http://dadaviz.com/i/3756/

The power of Social Media in making and unmaking

The Internet has become a perfect medium for unadulterated political movements. It is transforming the power dynamics of politics. On Social Media sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc, there are no barriers to entry. Thus power is diffused since everybody can participate.

In 2008 the power of Social media to seat and unseat was made evident in the presidential elections held in the USA. On our continent, Social Media has fueled political uprisings which have seen the downfall of regimes.  The ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the overthrow of President Mubarak of Egypt were underpinned by Social Media (see figure 2). In these instances, Social Media was used to communicate with the world about the political turmoil in these countries as well as a tool to organize protests, Facebook and Twitter being the most used. The Egyptian government could not control social media channels despite their efforts to control information flow in the country. There are no arguments then that Social Media is indeed a powerful force in the business of politics.

Shutting down Social Media in Ghana on elections day
Figure 2 – A tweet detailing the use of Social Media during the ousting of Mubarak.

Social media can be used to the benefit of politicians, according to usnews.com “Obama enjoyed a groundswell of support among, for lack of a better term, the Facebook generation. He will be the first occupant of the White House to have won a presidential election on the Web.”

Social Media can also be used to mobilize people to protect our peace.  There is a Page (cause) on Facebook dubbed ‘I stand for peace’ with about 900 supporters (See figure 3). This is an example of using Social Media to mobilize citizens for Peace.  Social Media can be used to encourage people to exercise their franchise. A 2012 study published in the journal Nature, “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization,” tested the idea that voting behavior can be significantly influenced by messages on Facebook.  The data gathered by researchers from the University of California and Facebook, “suggested that the Facebook social message increased turnout directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters, for a total of 340,000 additional votes.” – Source: http://journalistsresource.org

November 7 in Ghana - Is a ban on Social Media a means to ensure peace?
Figure 3 – The Peace Chain featuring Stacy Amoateng. Other bodies (Peace Council, Christian Council etc) can craft their own online strategies to help ensure that there is peace in Ghana come November 7
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This is Amy. She is a blogger>>>https://amynaema.wordpress.com She stands for peace. Be like Amy, stand for peace. Use Social Media wisely!

Is it possible to ban Social Media?

Absolutely. Social Networking sites and individual accounts can be blocked. An overwhelming majority of people equate Social Media to Facebook. This makes sense given the ubiquity and widespread adoption of this social network; however it is not the only kid on the block! Social media has proliferated and evolved into so many new shapes and forms and continues to do so.  There are   Social networking sites like Facebook: Micro-blogging sites like Twitter; Publishing tools like WordPress; Collaboration tools like Wikipedia;  Photo sharing sites Instagram and Pinterest, Video sharing sites  like YouTube and Vine Personal broadcasting tools like Blog Talk radio; Location based services like Foursquare; Live streaming sites like Periscope and Messaging applications like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram etc. This list is by no means exhaustive! And it continues to grow by day with some gaining momentum and others being phased out.  So which of the Social Media sites are going to be banned?

Apart from North Korea which is completely cut off from the World Wide Web. In countries like Iran where bans are in place, users find ways around these bans. Some use VPNs to reroute their internet traffic and access websites that have been blocked.

Maybe the Police Service should have employed that tactics used in Uganda.  Social Media was shut down in Uganda during the recent swearing-in of Museveni who has been in power since 1986. Internet service providers, MTN, Airtel and others, blocked access to Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter via handled devices. The shutdown, which industry regulator, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), said was ordered by “security organs” lasted for about 24 hours. This was reminiscent of   the about 48 hour’s shutdown of Facebook and other sites during elections in February. Even with the shutdown, “many citizens accessed social media sites via encrypted private networks.” – http://edition.cnn.com/

People will find a way around blockades, especially now that the general public knows it is under consideration. To avoid this, the internet should be shut down all together this will however have a pronounced economic impact on businesses and the country as a whole.

 

Checks and balances

“The advent of social media and its ability to fuel social unrest has empowered people around the world to successfully challenge their oppressive governments. However, as the very qualities of social media that promote unprecedented political progress—“its openness, its leveling effect, its reach and speed”—are used to further incite criminal civil disorder, it is critical for the government to employ strategies to quickly respond to such threats without compromising the United States’ commitment to a policy of an open Internet”. The IGP’s concerns are valid; the security of the nation is paramount. Yes, the peace we are enjoying now can so easily be destroy by the abuse of social media.  However, are these draconian regulations necessary?

One of the most interesting discussions I heard was on one of the local radio stations, where Mr. Koku Anyidoho was being interviewed. He supported the ban, claiming that he had been a victim of a usurped account on Facebook. He said that he had come out several times to issue disclaimers about this account and was at a loss as to how this account could be shut down.   He claimed he was not on Facebook and would never be “for reasons best known to him”.  And since Facebook could be used for vices such as these, it was a good idea to block it.  During the 2008 US elections, McCain even got “punked” by a Facebook prankster who posted a phony policy announcement right on McCain’s online profile: “Dear supporters, today I announce that I have reversed my position and come out in full support of gay marriage … particularly marriage between two passionate females.” That wasn’t reason enough to shut the site down!

Social media platforms may seem to be ‘free for all do whatever you like’ channels. However these Social Media platforms have owners, we are just renting property and they can deactivate accounts. We are all at the mercy of these Social Media platforms and their robots. People have been locked out of Facebook for reasons such us the name they are using not reaching Facebook standards.  As Instagram puts it, “accounts that don’t follow our Community Guidelines or Terms of Use may be disabled without warning.”

 

My #humblesuggestions

  1. Let us report unruly behavior and accounts on the various networking platforms we belong to. There are provisions for reporting posts and accounts on social media platforms.
  2. Let us deal with verified sources. I have come across a celebrity who went all out on Social Media against a satirical website. The main reason for that blog’s existence was to create humour through satirical headlines. If the celebrity had taken some time to investigate he would have not been up in arms against the blog.
  3. Let us remember that not everything we see and hear on social media is true. Videos and images can be edited. Even live broadcasts are shot from someone’s perspective. And as the saying goes, there are three sides to every story.
  4. Don’t make negativity viral. A case comes to mind during my campus days. A young lady on campus who unfortunately resembled an actress in a porn movie a couple of guys were watching in one of the halls of residence became a casualty. A rumour spread like wildfire around campus purporting this young lady to be a porn actress. In those days blue tooth was the tool for sharing and thus this ladies life became a living hell. The deadly combination or the rumour, the video as evidence and blue tooth nearly pushed this lady to end her life.  There is a way to stop negativity from going viral! Don’t share it, don’t ask for it!

 

Conclusions

I agree with this conclusion to a study by Mirae Yang in the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property (Volume 11 | Issue 7 Article 7 Fall 2013 ‘The Collision of Social Media and Social Unrest: Why Shutting Down Social Media is the Wrong Response’). Our government should increase law enforcement officers’ ability to effectively use social media platforms to anticipate and promptly respond to violence. By taking action prior to the eruption of social unrest, the government will be well-equipped to anticipate, prevent, and control any potential or ongoing violent civil disorders while still preserving Internet freedom.

Ghana placed 26th on the Reporters Without Borders 2015 World Press Freedom Index. The index measured the freedom of information and journalists in 160 countries around the world. In its 2016 index Ghana and the USA are equally regarded as countries which have satisfactory situations in terms of press freedom (see figure 4). Let us protect our image.  There will be no need for these sanctions if we are responsible. Like fire, Social Media can be a good servant but a bad master. I believe in Ghana. I am for Peace 2016. #BeInspiredGH And if you are a politician and need ‘Obama moves’ to win the elections, send me a mail!

Ghana's elections. Ban on Social Media in Ghana
Figure 4 – Ghana ranked as having a satisfactory situation in the Freedom of the press worldwide Index (2016)

 

 

 

 

 

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