Misunderstood Media

The problem with Ethiopia is that too many people believe there exists a secret society which not only exists but is behind the world order, moving pieces around to its benefit in the shadows.

Perhaps such a society does exist, but that its members include the likes of Rihanna and Barack Obama remains entirely unsubstantiated. Other popular conspiracy theories I have heard thrown around is that Obama created the Islamic State (IS) or that the September 11 attack in the United States also included the bombing of the World Trade Centres from the inside.

In such an atmosphere, where people throw caution out of the window and are willing to believe any theory as long as it is posted somewhere on the internet, it is right that a government such as that of Ethiopia’s worry about the negative effects of social media.

A famous case is that of the Addis Abeba & Surrounding Oromia Special Zone Integrated Master Plan, which was developed to create an integrated urban development between the capital and surrounding towns in Oromia. While it is entirely alright to debate the pros and cons of the since-cancelled Plan, it is unfortunate that too many Ethiopians believed that it would bring the Oromia towns into the administrative umbrella of Addis Abeba.

The consequence of that misunderstanding is well understood as are the implications of spreading fear and hatred over social media. To that end, there was a panel discussion that was held last week over the uses and misuses of social media. One of the high-profile attendees was Negeri Lencho (PhD), minister of Government Communications Affairs Office.

It was at this panel the idea of a policy over the use of social media was raised. It is fortunate that the government notices the power of the internet, in bringing political and social change. It is highly unfortunate though that they believe the way out of it is some sort of regulation on its use.

Being ambivalent over the advantages of social media is natural. We have learned this over recent scandals at Facebook. First, the company was found to have sold users’ data to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm. The firm is believed to have affected messaging by political parties from the United States to neighbouring Kenya.

Another was a confirmation of what many had suspected. A leaked memo by an executive, Andrew Bosworth, asserted that Facebook should grow its customer base at all costs since the ultimate good was global connectivity.

Gullibility is most exploited on social media. Facebook has come to a great distance in creating the global connectivity it dreamed of. But it also presented us with a platform that harbours too many clans within it. Likeminded users are only exposed to each other, and the post or share that gets the most likes is the one that fits everyone’s bias about politics or race.

Ethiopia has not been different in this case but to posture that political division exists because of it is utterly something else. It is refreshing to see that officials do believe that it has played a part – in the public media’s failure to report on issues that affect the public that funds it. And that is where the reforms need to take place before we can conclude that without the existence of social media, Ethiopia would be free of the current political crisis.

Although it is sensible to ensure that Facebook uses users’ data responsibly and makes it clear who it is selling them to, there is some truth in Bosworth’s claim. The ultimate goal of the company should be to connect people. But while Facebook should be more responsible in its use of our data, there is a measure of responsibility we the users should take, as well as our government.

A good analogy is to think of Facebook as fuel. We can either use it to make energy and power our car or to burn things. In the case of the latter, the fuel retailer that sold it to us is not held legally responsible for our deed because, after all, we are rational beings.

Social media’s case and the use of information and misinformation thus is not a prerogative that should fall at the feet of Mark Zuckerberg or any one of the entrepreneurs that have given us an exciting world.

Creating a citizenry that at the very least questions the source of the information it has been fed should fall at the feet of the government. There needs to be a public media that is independent and upholds journalistic standards. What we have remains overtly biased for a single party in a country whose constitution supports a multiparty system of government.

To ensure this autonomy, the government must consider privatising most of the popular TV stations. This should also help in filling the shortage of skilled human power that is ripe at the state-run TV stations. With as little regulation as possible, the media should be made to carry out its duties. There is a lesson we have to take in Ethiopian News Network’s (ENN) success – in the neutrality of its presentation and the upholding of better journalistic standards.

If years after such reforms there is not an informed electorate that is not susceptible to fake news, then the government would be correct to ponder policing the use of social media.


By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye (christian.tesfaye@addisfortune.net) is Fortune's Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.

Published on Apr 06,2018 [ Vol 18 ,No 936]



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