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How poor use of social media platforms can ruin economies

By Allan Kilavuka | February 21st 2021

Kenya Airways Group Managing Director and CEO Allan Kilavuka. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

What can we learn from the Great Depression of the 1930s?

I recently stumbled upon a political cartoon published in 1931 by Chester Garde titled “Scuse me, Buddy, is this the bread-line or a run on a bank.”

In the cartoon, a man joining a queue asks others whether the long line was a breadline or a run on a bank. During the Great Depression, the US was going through an economic crisis, which began after the stock market crash in 1921. It extended into the ‘30s.

During this period, many people lost their jobs and wealth. People would queue to buy bread, the most affordable food item. These queues were known as breadlines.

Long queues at banks were also common as people withdrew money frequently to survive. Bank customers were worried about their lenders’ ability to stay afloat.

These withdrawals caused the banks to collapse, weakening economies. Breadlines and bank runs were normalised during the depression. Sometimes, breadlines would be confused for a bank queue and misinformation would lead to a run on a bank - worsening the depression.

Chester Garde’s political cartoon, although published many years ago, reflects the reality that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The book says it well: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

This 1931 cartoon provides an interesting illustration of how the use (or maybe more accurately misuse) of social media can lead us down a dark and dangerous tunnel. There is disagreement on the benefits of social media over the last two decades.

Initially a communication experiment, social media evolved into platforms of personal data used by people for their “digital networks,” and is now a huge part of our lives and a main source of news. Using social media is like instant coffee. You boil water add the coffee and sugar to your liking and its ready to drink. The difference is simply the tools. All that one needs is a smartphone.

For businesses, social media has created a platform to share brand messaging with the right people at the right time.

Separating facts

The speed and reach allows brands to quickly generate interest and develop life-long brand loyalty. However, in the last decade, navigating social media has become a web of intricacies.

While some may still be learning to use it, the majority of users do not need any training. Separating facts from fiction, and truth from a lie online is not easy.

In recent years, we have seen a rise in fake news, fake reviews, and offensive content that damage brand or personal reputation.

In our breadline illustration, for example, it is more sensational to claim that a breadline is a run on a bank. That is what many on social media are doing. Unfortunately, many of us do not care or know how to fact-check.

It is not easy to stop the spread of social media misinformation, especially when information gets reposted, retweeted and shared.

We are in a disinformation age. The truth increasingly becomes ‘my truth.’ And the craving for popularity or ‘trending’ builds an illusion of influence when the misinformation is causing more damage than good. Calls for increased accountability has seen governments take action. In 2018, Kenya criminalised insults on social media and the spread of false information with a fine of up to Sh5 million, two years of jail time, or both.

Some countries have imposed huge fines on social media networks. Germany fines social networks up to Sh6.6 billion (€50 million) for failing to remove illegal content from their sites.

At KQ, we are establishing a fact-checker to help customers access the right information and fight misinformation. Media outlets are doing their part.

While there is no quick fix to fake news, social media users should verify the information. Sharing of misinformation may cause a run on a business or bankrupt it entirely.

-The writer is the CEO of Kenya Airways

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