The discontent towards social media is growing. As early as last week, roundtable discussions were being held on TV, on one of the state-run channels, about the negative impacts of social media on the current political crisis of Ethiopia. They remarked that it is corrupting the younger generation.
They spoke of ‘fake news’ that are giving way to unrests in the country, to the destruction of property and the loss of innocent lives of civilians. Social media is no way to move the national conversation forward, they said.
It has evidently become a headache for officials, if the constant internet outages, especially in the regional parts of the country, are anything to go by. It has complicated enforcing the state of emergency. It was declared in the effort to bring about stability, but that attempt is being shortchanged, by campaigns of overseas-based opposition forces that are directing the blockade of goods from entering the capital, Addis Abeba.
All of us have our opinions about social media. It cannot be denied that it enforces fake news. In contrast, news that is factual, and for that reason often boring, are in most cases left ‘unliked’. It is the perfect platform for populists that use falsity, rumours, hatred and fear as a tool to advance political agendas.
But then, it is hard to claim that the only reason such voices have grown noteworthy over the internet is merely a function of the nature of social media. That cannot be further from the truth even if it has played a part.
Ethiopians have not been lucky to receive a complete picture of the nation from the government. State-run media often discuss the successes of the government, however little they may be. Their perceived lack of criticism of public officials has left them untrustworthy in the eyes of the populace, and as we are witnessing now, the youth.
Most people have switched off, and if they turn their TVs on, they nitpick the sorts of information they believe and completely disregard others they feel are not accurate. At the same time, they are feeding on social media, from individuals and organisations that are not bound by any law to take responsibility for the stories they tell on their social media pages.
And then that information is shared with a mere tap of the finger. With friends and family, they analyse the matter and reach their conclusions. The latter of which is sometimes correct, most times naïve but harmless, and at times a cause for great public discontent.
The government has always remained disconnected to this basic human nature, often resorting to shutting down the internet – officials claim that these are just technical glitches, however uncanny the coincidence.
What they should have done instead is try to engage in the argument. Coming up with explanations, admitting mistakes and rejecting misinformation by presenting the contradictory evidence.
Citizens have a full right to be informed of facts that are, of course, not detrimental to national security. When news comes from social media, before they are ever picked up by the public media, it eats away at the reliability of such institutions.
Political leaders may not be incentivised to tell the truth if it goes against their interests, but the public media is, otherwise there is little purpose in its existence. If citizens are being kept in the dark, despite the fact that the public technically owns these institutions, then it should be evident that they are not serving any purpose.
Human beings are curious by nature, but I am convinced that the current young generation is highly eager for information. The time we live in is not called the Information Age for nought. It is a time when knowledge is easily accessible for all and sundry. And governments have complete responsibility to ensure access and try their best to cushion the shortcomings without restricting the use of the internet.
There are some good developments by the government to bring about stability by negotiating with opposition parties, even those that are not legal in the country. There was one in Nairobi, Kenya, last month, mediated by Ali Bunow Korane, a Kenyan governor. It did not end in success, but imagine how constructive it would have been had such news received the emphasis it deserved on state media, instead of being announced on the governor’s Facebook page and other news agencies.
The same goes for the status of the thousands of displaced across the border of Kenya, in the wake of the tragic incident in the town of Moyale as a result of security officers.
Where is the continued coverage of the state they are in? Why is the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) not sending its reporters there, as it does to Dubai?
The need for discretion at such a politically heated time is evident. But being left in the dark makes citizens all the more uncomfortable.
What is ironic is that the ruling EPRDFites should know more than anyone else the importance of their radio broadcasts during the struggle against the Dergue regime – a powerful weapon they used to win the hearts of the people by. For people that believed in the constructiveness of disseminating information, that they have since lost such instinct is tragic.
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