Of rights and responsibilities: Social media freedom under attack

“From the streets of Cairo and Arab Spring, to Occupy Wall Street, from the busy political calendar to the aftermath of the Tsunami in Japan, social media was not only sharing news but driving it,” Dan Rather.

I have no doubt social media is an important tool. I agree that it is a catalyst for the advancement of everyone’s rights for it is where we’re reminded that we’re all human and all equal – it is where people can find people – new and long lost friends; where one can find love marriages and heartache.

Social media is a ‘marketplace’ where people can find and fight for a cause, global or local, popular or specialized, even when there are hundreds of miles between them. The evolution of social media into a robust mechanism for social transformation is highly visible.

But the new dynamics driven by social media are proving to be a powerful impetus not only for change, but also a recipe for chaos and sometimes can be used as a vehicle for hate speech and spreading of false news.

However, the thought that so many people in Malawi nowadays rely to get their news from the social media really is scary. It takes discipline for many of us not to let social media steal our time. We simply live our lives on social media.

On 25th May 2014 I went to bed crestfallen, convinced that a coup was imminent in Malawi.

The thought of waking up under a military regime was enough to make me lose sleep and as the insomnia kicked in images of civilians fighting the army in Thailand flashed through my mind’s eye.

I couldn’t help but recall the famous 1993 “multiparty ndi nkhondo” speech by Foloma Mwale of the Malawi Congress Party. He did warn us.

“What’s happening to our young democracy?” I asked myself. “Where exactly did we go wrong?”

Would the junta tolerate protests? Curfews! So many things went through my head that my nervous, digestive and excretory systems were on the verge of a meltdown. All this, thanks to social media.

Earlier on, I had seen on Facebook several posts claiming that Army Commander, General Henry Odillo of the Malawi Defense Forces was going to take control of Malawi. These posts carried a lot of weight because they were made by people that we respect, Malawians that speak for the voiceless.

I mean, why would these well reputed men post such a stories, if they weren’t sure that indeed the military was taking over? Would these ‘heroes’ intentionally stir up unrest?

Needless to say I woke up today and managed to go on about my day normally (while reading new ‘breaking’ news). No tanks or soldiers giving orders on the streets – with life going-on routinely as it must be.

This is just one isolated case, but similar messages are being forwarded on social media utilities such as; WhatsApp, BBM, Viber and other platforms. This is just one isolated case though because rumours from people who claim to have ‘inside’ sources have always been going round on social media but they seem to have peaked during the recent tripartite elections.

Social media is a great way to keep up with current affairs and stay connected to friends and relatives almost anywhere in the world. It gives us a quick and easy access to updates and the ability to communicate with lots of people at one time. Even major news networks like CNN and BBC get some of their stories on social media.

One huge advantage social media has over traditional channels is the speed at which news spread. A story can go viral in a matter of minutes. It is a powerful tool and has the ability to influence public opinion.

And from my observation, I can confidently say that most of Malawians and the rest of the world are currently relying on the internet especially the social media network especially Facebook, Twitter and personal blogs to get updates of the Malawi 2014 tripartite elections.

The good thing is that these days almost all major Malawian media houses have an online presence i.e. Twitter, Facebook and a website (which are the most common amongst Malawian users). Access to information is just a finger-click away.

I keep on refreshing my feed every minute so that I shouldn’t miss the next injunction or stay order granted by the courts or a new twist to the saga. I don’t want to be caught napping as the ‘Malawi Drama Group’ and its actors continue perform off the script.

‘Public misconception’
The late Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika once said that Malawi is country ruled by injunctions, it seems like he wasn’t far from the truth after all because chances are another injunction would have been issued before this article gets posted.

However, there seems to be a public misconception that the internet is somehow a free speech zone to which the laws do not apply. Malawians are overly excited with the internet especially social media what with the proliferation of affordable smart phones/ tablets and this has been compounded by the election impasse.

People are just posting anything they want, both true and untrue, creating panic, tension and confusion, and in the process inadvertently breaking the law. Some people actually have created pages with a sole purpose to insult other people.

For instance, someone just wakes up and decides to create a Facebook account in someone else’s name and start spewing hate. Some actually have accounts under pseudonyms (zigoba) they use to spread propaganda and misinformation.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the famous ‘Wamtali Savala Gogoda’ ‘Magede Si Wandale’, ‘Innocett Mawaya’, ‘Ruth Chimangeni’ or ‘Mary Bauleni’ et al, does not exist.

There are so many parody accounts on Facebook that it is difficult if not outright impossible to tell which one belongs to the ‘real’ person. 99.5 percent of these people who create ‘Zigoba’ pose to know a lot but in actual fact, they are clowns and if this trend is going to continue unchecked, we are going to live through a devastating social bubble.

Music kingpin cum politician, Lucius Banda, UDF president Atupele Muluzi, Republican Vice president Khumbo Kachali and State President Dr. Joyce Banda had to distance themselves from fake Facebook accounts in 2013. And, Facebook users do not have the monopoly on this; there are also a lot of Twitter parody accounts that spew a lot of hate.

People post stuff on the internet in the belief that they will not be prosecuted for breaching legal rules. Little do they know that a court order can make Facebook or Twitter give up someone’s IP address and tie them to a specific account (in the case of fake names) – A simple Google search will show you just how easily traceable you are in the digital world.

Let’s not let our emotions take over and create unnecessary unrest. This has to be nipped by a government-sanctioned civic education campaign to enlighten the masses that freedom of speech comes with responsibilities. Let’s try our best not to be making and/or forwarding unverified, provocative and inflammatory pieces no matter how irresistible it may be.

At the end of the day, we cannot all be media practitioners. We need to leave that to qualified and well-trained Journalists to do their work efficiently.

‘Horn-tooting Morons’

Paradoxically, it is a rule of the thumb in Journalism that any story is verified, balanced and fair to ensure that the contents are truthful and accurate before going to bed, in layman’s language, before publishing any information.

I know that in this day and age, there is freedom of expression and freedom of speech, that, it is a birthright for all to access information, however I am also aware that it’s imperative that every right exercised comes with responsibility. Those that do not exercise their right responsibly risk facing the long arm of the law, and can be prosecuted for spreading false news, inciting violence and be taken to the cleaners for defamation.

Everyone has their interests, but what we need to remember is that Malawi comes first. No individual is bigger and better than our national interest.

Politicians will come and go, but Malawi will remain a permanent hospitable host to her people forever and ever. Social media is not about the exploitation of technology, but if put to good use; it is a service to ourselves, our communities and ultimately our country.

Let us use social media wisely because it provides us with the power to connect, learn, educate other and entertain others.

Everyone now is an expert and can go on social media and post whatever he likes as Denis Leary said:”The social wish-list on facebook is a great example of everything about social media hullabaloo.”

The social media as it pertains to Malawians voicing their supposed concerns on politics has been hijacked by people who bootlick politicians. They’re paid by political parties’ to be masquerading as experts on various issues but their sole purpose is to misinform and to divert attention from the real issues that are wrecking havoc in the country.

It is on social media that MEC chairperson Justice Maxon Mbendera resigned from his job, purportedly because the pressure was too much for him. It’s the horn-tooting morons on social network who fallaciously announced that incumbent President Joyce Banda was planning to handover power to General Odillo.

Social media is called social media for a reason; it lends itself to sharing and social networking, rather than horn-tooting. The social media is a form of disruptive communication humankind has ever known.

And then, there are Facebook pastors and their verses. God this, God that. Who told you God has a facebook account?

As others aptly put it, we did not inherit this country from our ancestors we borrowed it from our children and thus we must tread carefully for a better tomorrow – The onus is on us.

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