Social media platforms and networks like Facebook and Twitter have flattened political hierarchies and social statuses. Or so it seems. The hoi polloi now think of themselves as “equal” to kings and dictators behind the anonymity of the keyboard. Folks believe in the illusory democracy of the web.
That’s why the villager can raise a deadly verbal machete against a governor over the Net. Or why the lumpen proletariat can fire endless volleys at princes. Mortal enemies threaten each other with Armageddon over Twitter. Which begs the question — who can say what, and to whom, over social media? Should the state wield social media tools against the citizen? If so, under what conditions and ethical and legal constraints?
These aren’t idle questions. I raise them because the power of the published word is now in the hands of every saint and villain. All you need is a device connected to the web. Hackers lurk behind every electronic device. Your privacy and identity can be stolen, if they haven’t been pilfered already.
Your most intimate moments can be watched by all manner of prurient sleuths. I may actually be under surveillance on this computer as I write this column. Social media and the web have fuelled innovation, but are also sewers for the worst human proclivities. Should the Net be censored, as they do in China and Turkey? What are the limits of free expression on social media?
First, let’s applaud social media for “democratising” public participation in governance. Citizens can now organise and speak up without much effort, or obstacle. One tweet can start a popular revolution. One post on Facebook can bring down a powerful figure.
Power can be tamed by the least among us. Proactive citizens can organise in a matter of seconds. Online petitions demanding change, or a policy can catch fire in an instant. Selfies, like the one showing Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta in a Middle Eastern country recently, can go viral.
Such familiarity can breed contempt. But it also tells the public that the powerful and the famous are human — just like the rest of us. It demystifies power and fame.
Second, social media can foster hubris in the mind of the common citizen. Some dimwits and malignant folks with connected devices use them for the most abominable purposes. In Kenya, political foes have created a toxic atmosphere on social media.
Tribal bigots slug it out in the vilest manner. Favour seekers and the basest sycophants defend their tribal overlords with the zeal of the venomous viper. The most hateful and sinister rumors and libel are committed in the name of free expression. Anti-women and anti-gay attacks are spewed by the crudest vermin on social media. This crudity has coarsened public discourse and corrupted morality. Cowards and spirit killers of every stripe stalk the web ready to pounce on innocents.
Third, even with these evils, we must protect the openness of the web and social media. Any form of censorship would be worse than the evils perpetrated by the private egomaniacs. Here, we must innovate and not let criminals go scot-free in the name of free speech. Libel, stalking, bullying, and deadly threats must be punished by the law.
You won’t get away with shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. By the same token, you should be culpable for vile acts on the web and social media.
New laws should be passed to catch up to the digital and social media age. The courts should lead the way in elucidating the proper jurisprudence on this virgin territory of the law.
Fourth, while private individuals and citizens must be given a wide latitude on social media and the web, the state and its leading officials must be put in a strait-jacket. Clearly, the state must use the web and social media to promote and defend its policies and programmes. It must use social media tools to effectively communicate on matters of security and public interest.
Open government in the sense of transparency can’t exist today without social media and the web. But — and this is the rub — the state mustn’t resort to social media to castigate and vilify critics. The government shouldn’t use social media as a weapon of propaganda against the people, or those who seek to hold it accountable.
I close with a pithy example. One Dennis ole Itumbi, the so-called Director of Digital Communication in the Office of the President, uses his platform to vilify Jubilee critics and civil society.
He can’t express “personal” views on social media because the line between the public and the private doesn’t exist for such an official of his status. Kenyan taxpayers buy his ugali and sukumawiki. Neither he, nor any senior official within the state, should castigate critics on social media.