Social media: a net gain for democracy or autocracy?

2011 will go down in history as the year a revolution was spurred through a social media network. Ben Ali’s toppling in Tunisia was ignited by a fed-up vendor who set himself on fire and whose actions rippled across the country and moved people to action. The rest is history.

The power to influence people is no longer the reserve of the rich, thanks to the influence of social media.
The power to influence people is no longer the reserve of the rich, thanks to the influence of social media.

There is no doubt that social networks played a pivotal role in the downfall of Ben Ali and the ensuing weeks of mobilizing Tunisians to remove the veil of fear that had gripped their nation for over three decades.

In spite of Tunisia’s strict web censorship laws, scenes of the college-educated street vendor’s act spread far and wide. The oppressive regime took great pains to suppress the information, but to no avail.

Premier Ghannouchi took over after Ali’s departure, however, by January 2011 Facebook pages that were dedicated to ousting Ali, soon turned their attention to getting rid of Ghannouchi. Protesters relied heavily on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Spurred on by the overthrow of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, the protests spread to Egypt on January 25, 2011 where opposition leaders declared a “Day of Rage” when protesters would take to the street against President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Internet-savvy protesters

While exact numbers of protesters could not be estimated, a flood of internet photographs and videos showed a massive presence in Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities.

These protests lasted 18 days and internet-savvy protesters used Twitpic, Facebook and YouTube to disseminate videos and photographs that called on Egyptians to join the fight.

Protesters provided minute-by-minute tweets with details of where to meet and more than 90,000 people signed up on a Facebook page for the Tuesday January 25 protests, framed by the organizers as a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment.

How do these examples translate to a Zimbabwean situation and what role is social media playing in our fight for democracy?

Personal dreams

When the United States Ambassador to Zimbabwe was awarded the Diplomatic Human Rights Defender of the year award by a group of youths from Kwekwe, he said: “Social media networks have not only changed politics, but the cultural and social setting in the Western Hemisphere and other parts of the world. Zimbabwe has not been left out. I have over 4 900 friends on my Facebook page. 4 800 of them are young Zimbabweans who I interact with on a daily basis on a variety of matters, although some try very much to politicise everything we talk about. A lot of these matters though have a lot to do with personal dreams, dreams to make their part of the world a better place,” Ambassador Ray said.

He said social networking had already changed Zimbabwe, but not the same way it contributed to the Arab Spring.

The Facebook page belonging to Mohamed Nafti, a 33 year-old doctor in Tunis, who posted pictures of the street protests.
The Facebook page belonging to Mohamed Nafti, a 33 year-old doctor in Tunis, who posted pictures of the street protests.

“People always try and compare events here to what has happened in the Arab world, but those were peculiar events and of seismic proportions. I have interacted with a cross section of youths and ordinary Zimbabweans, some of whom have probably been restricted in terms of who they talk to or what they talk about, but have found social media liberating,” the US envoy said.

Ray added that Zimbabweans, especially the youths, were now talking to colleagues in Europe and Asia through the platform he had created on his social networking page.

Dereck Goto, the CEO of Web Entangled Zimbabwe, thinks social media is a net gain for democracy.

“Social Media gives internet users access to conversations which are more powerful than access to information. Instead of reading “strange rumblings” from Jonathan Moyo or “unpatriotic chants” by Biti, depending on which side of the divide you’re on, social media allows the ordinary person to fully participate in the conversation and share their thoughts with other ordinary users,” Goto said.

Ordinary users

He added that the power of informing and influencing people had shifted from being the preserve of rich and powerful publishing houses to the ordinary user.

“I believe this is the primary reason why social media has become so popular, it helps solidify common understandings and beliefs, ultimately leading to collective actions. Having said this, it is important to make it clear that social media is a mere collection of communication tools. In and of itself it does not lead to revolt or discontent, it is a facilitator,” said Goto.

He said social media could actually be used by autocratic regimes for suppression.

“For instance, it can be quite easy to identify and punish the ring leaders should trouble arise. This then leads to the question – Is social media a net gain for democracy or is it a net gain for autocracy? My opinion is that it is a net gain for democracy,” Goto added.

According to recent statistics, Zimbabwe has an estimated five million internet users who have access to social networking sites. Most of these people are aged 35 or younger and actively participate in social online debates on a daily basis.

Post published in: Africa News

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