When the first telephone was installed in Emperor Menelik II’s palace in 1889, it caused such a cultural shock in the city that eight prominent members of the clergy were sent to persuade the emperor to get rid of this instrument of the devil.
In such a fast-changing world, which does not preclude the 19th century, most of the social structures we heavily depend on remain relatively static and have a hard time catching up to the new realities that pull us forward.
Every new technological innovation, every ingenious human advancement has to face the underlying social structure and institutions. There is an undercurrent of tension between the two that requires creative policy making and society-wide cultural adaptation.
A perfect illustration of this in recent years is the advancement in information technology that has produced an explosion of social media platforms for exchanging information and ideas. But these very same platforms have also presented easy means by which fake news and hate speech can be transmitted. It has gotten to the point that the fundamental core values of society, even citizenship, are being challenged.
Between the extreme positions of rejecting advanced technology as the work of the devil and the wholesale unthinking abusive use of it, we must find the sweet spot where we can be responsible citizens of the social media age.
The starting point has to be understanding the foundations upon which these social media platforms were built. It is not without reason that the most powerful and pioneering social media companies in the world were founded and are based in liberal societies – countries that believe people have fundamental rights to freedom of thought and expression.
Such democratic societies and the system of government they introduced is a relatively new human innovation itself. For centuries before then, the ruling elite were hereditary monarchs who believed that they were specially endowed with leadership qualities. In such a system, the leaders make pronouncements and the citizens follow the orders. Communication was rather simple and pretty straightforward.
But the revolution in the new system of democratic government is the belief that all citizens, in the words of the American Declaration of Independence, “are created equal and that they have certain unalienable rights.” Such empowered citizens are assumed to be capable of forming a government “from the people, by the people and for the people.”
To do that, they need information that leads to deliberative democracy. If they are to choose their own leaders, instead of accepting the next in line in the hereditary rule system, they need information on those that aspire to be their leaders. In other words, one cannot have a democracy in the absence of an informed public. That is why the right to freedom of thought and expression has to be protected.
This very important role of informing the public has been traditionally filled almost exclusively by the media. That is why the media is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate. That shows the important role the media plays and the high esteem it commands in democratic countries.
But that was then. The reality now is that even though the media plays a very crucial role in informing the public, it is not the only actor in town anymore. Increasingly, more and more people are becoming citizen journalists, and a significant number of the public get their news from social media sites such as Facebook, not the legacy media.
However, though its primary function has evolved into analysis and explanation rather than mere event reporting, the media still plays a crucial role in a democratic society. And that is why every form of totalitarianism makes freedom of speech and the press enemy number one.
As a result of its evolution and history as the fourth estate, journalism has developed self-imposed ethical restrictions on itself that compel it to hold on to certain professional standards – loyalty to the truth, independence and transparency. But that is not all.
It also has legal restrictions and accountability to contend with. These limitations are important distinctions, because unlike other social media users and activists, professional journalists operate within this atmosphere of accountability. One has to keep this in mind in the process of verifying the sources of information.
The major force in today’s social media world, however, more than journalists, are users of social platforms. Facebook has over two billion active users; Instagram is fast approaching a billion; while Twitter, with its 280-word limit, has close to 330 million users. At face value, the ability of more citizens with platforms to express their thoughts should be all good. However, the reality is like all things in this life – there is a downside.
One of the side effects of unlimited choices enjoyed by social media users is the creation of “the filter bubble.” Filtering happens when users exercise their freedom of choice to interact with only those who hold similar views as themselves.
Before the social media revolution, when one picked up the newspaper to read the news, the topics covered were not limited to one’s interests. Though we were free to choose to read the articles we are interested in, we were at least exposed to other topics as well. But in the internet age, we mostly choose to read only in our area of interest. We interact with people who only share our interest and worldview.
But filtering is not done just by users. The social media companies also filter using algorithms that figure out what we like. Therefore, the combined effect of filtering done by ourselves and the social media companies is the creation of an echo chamber where one only interacts with like-minded people.
The opportunity to interact with people that may hold different belief systems or different ideas is becoming increasingly limited. This is the unintended consequences of unlimited choice.
The advancement of human knowledge is partly based on the sparks that are created when opposing views clash and compete in the marketplace of ideas. The lack of chance encounters and shared experiences in the social media age, unfortunately, deprives us of this engine of human advancement. Instead, it leads to fragmentation and polarisation. In a diverse society like Ethiopia that could be deadly.
People who live in their own echo chambers, being deprived of the oxygen of fresh ideas, become stunted in their thinking. Not only that, encouraged by the confirmation bias their like-minded social media friends feed them, they slowly but surely get unmoored from reality. They become vulnerable to conspiracy theories and extremism.
The anonymity of the internet and the groupthink that results from the echo chamber creates and exaggerates the “us” versus “them” mentality. When one spends all day railing against “them”, it becomes increasingly easy to demonise and insult those people. Some even choose to cross the line to commit terrorist acts.
Some suggest regulation as a solution to this problem. But regulation usually creates as many problems as it solves. Most of all, it gives governments the excuse to encroach on the right to free speech. Instead, the answer lies in each of us exercising our responsibility as citizens who value their freedom.
Responsible citizenship starts from understanding the social media world. It is not only average users that post ideas. Professional activists, from human rights advocates to terrorists, also use it to mobilise support for their causes. These are tech-savvy operators who use sophisticated operations to spread their message online.
There are at least three major players in the social media world: journalists, activists and regular citizen users of the internet. When we are bombarded by a message on social media, it is important to know which of these three is the source of the information before we start sharing and spreading it.
It is good to keep in mind that at one end are professional journalists that work under professional and legal constraints to verify what they spread. On the other extreme are the average users of social media who have no restrictions whatsoever. Activists are somewhere in the middle. They may have self-imposed restraint to protect their reputation. However, their loyalty is to their cause, not the truth.
A democratic form of government believes that citizens are capable of administering themselves. If we value our freedom and want to live in a free society, we will use our choices responsibly. Responsible use means making an effort to know the sources of messages.
If we want news, we have to go to credible journalistic websites, not to our friend’s Facebook wall. When we get a message from an activist, we should take it with a grain of salt. If it is from our Facebook friend, we should have the wisdom to find out the source before we share it. Most of all, we must intentionally listen to opposing views.
Freedom is not free. We have to be responsible enough to earn it. We will do well to remember to use not only our right to free speech but also to freedom of thought.
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