Social media influencers should not and must not be allowed to kill democracy


Media that cannot stand up to defend public interest ceases to work for the voiceless. [Courtesy]

“A newspaper,” wrote Josiah Ward, “is a sacred business… it doesn’t belong to the men who run it or to those who own the plant. The press belongs to the public, to the people. To get the news, you may kill, steal, burn, cheat, lie; but never sell out your paper in thought or deed.”

Ward was the editor of Denver Republican, an American newspaper in the 1920s.

These words were told in a fit of anger to a reporter (Gene Fowler) for committing “an indiscretion in the paper’s name”. Reporting news is really a serious, sacred business. Journalism is not only a laborious craft. For it just doesn’t take grit, determination, years of painstaking, dare-devil courage, a nose (and an eye) for the news to get good journalism on newspaper pages and on the airwaves. It also takes a good mind and a big, fat conscience and good judgment too.

Historical accounts are kinder to Fowler whose big story about how big businessmen in Denver arm-twisted the governor into suppressing a miners’ strike was “killed” by the newspaper publisher. To validate Ward’s assertion that the newspaper belonged to the people, Denver Republican thereafter folded up. But few media houses learnt lessons from this incident.

Over time and mostly because of monopolising audiences and shaping public opinion, big cash flowed constantly from advertisement and circulation and the favours from the powers-that-be. The temptation and the risk to be bigheaded, impervious to the voice of reason and to be captured, soon overpowered them. And the chickens came home to roost.

Media that cannot stand up to defend public interest, gets overawed by the chutzpah and the showmanship of the cunning political class, ceases to work for the voiceless and soon loses its moral standing and the power to be a force for good.

So when social media burst onto the scene, the promise it held out; transparency, openness and accountability sounded enticing. With social media, it meant the news agenda would no longer be controlled by a few news outlets and media barons with vested interests. Through the web, social media enables people to keep up with events in profoundly new ways and because they let people anywhere report what they see, Google, Facebook and Twitter have become important conduits of news; good or bad; wanted or unwanted.

But, alas, social media is not living up to its billing. Needless to say, the loss of accountability journalism (from the legacy media), which held the powerful to account was a big blow to society. But what has replaced it is more menacing in many ways. By many accounts, it is increasingly looking as though the medicine is worse than the disease it sought to cure.

A band of online militiamen (and women) wielding smartphones - the so-called social media influences for political hire-are terrorising institutions and organisations, individuals in the name of free expression. Through social media, they are corroding democracy by amplifying prejudices and fostering alternative truths.

Kenya’s democracy has hitherto been imperilled by a political class that has submerged tribalism and patronage and a media that has seemingly acquiesced to the bullying and blackmail from the ruling elite and influence-peddlers. It now faces a more savage threat.

By denigrating those with alternative views, social media insurgents and its cancel culture go against what has fostered democracy: The idea that it is everyone’s duty to defend the other person’s right to speak even when they may be wrong.

“The use of social media doesn’t cause division so much as amplify it…because people are sucked into a maelstrom of pettiness and scandal and outrage, they lose sight of what matters for the society they share,” cautioned The Economist recently.

Democracy thrives where friends can belong to different political ideologies. Not anymore. The truth is as they spread misinformation and vitriol and poison, the so-called influencers diminish their power to genuinely shape public debate and opinion.

Silencing others so that you can be the only one talking - and lie - soon loses meaning because the rest will withdraw and decline to be part of the conversation.

Mr Kipkemboi is Partnerships and Special Projects Editor, Standard Group

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