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IN SUMMARY: Social media are transforming the way audiences engage with information, authorities and institutions of traditional power in Uganda but participation is yet to give way to contestation of dominant narratives and entrenched power structures.
It is a pleasant surprise to be able to speak with you this morning. A pleasure, because I see many people in the room that I know and some that I even like – and a surprise, because I have no idea what I am supposed to talk about!
In the absence of any deep intellectual insights, here is how I plan to occupy the time allocated to me: First, I will outline a theoretical framework with which I would like to discuss today’s topic. Then I will localise it by applying its core arguments to the reality of Ugandan society and the political landscape.
But first we must define the scope of what we understand to be social media and what distinguishes it from, for instance, traditional or mainstream media, and why we think it worthy of an important conference such as this one. My dictionary defines social media as “websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking”.
Mostly, I would add, tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, Snapchat and so on, are spaces in which network effects are formed, bringing together producers and consumers of information and often blurring the lines in a constant feedback loop. They are at once, building blocks of a new relational dynamic, and sledgehammers for dismantling established power structures around the flow and dissemination of information and the accruing power thereof as seen in traditional media.
It is important to clarify, right from the onset, that the term “social media” is not synonymous with social movements or the process of social networking for that matter. Whether it is in feudal Russia or revolutionary France or even in our own Uganda during the days of Idi Amin and Obote II, people faced with sufficient levels of widespread corruption, impunity and repression have, even with the most rudimentary forms of communication, been able to mobilise action to change their circumstances, often by revolutionary or at least radical means.
While these tools and movements have been around for many years, the social media phenomenon has been pushed towards terminal velocity by a combination of technological advances and increased access, coupled with the newly found ‘mobilisational’ capacities of these network effects.
Falling costs of smartphones and data have increased reach and access but it was the Barack Obama presidential campaigns in 2008 and the events of the Arab Spring that followed, starting in 2010, that first demonstrated the potency of social media.
In only a few years, thus, social media host the world’s conversations, give blow-by-blow accounts of events as they happen, and have disrupted not just traditional media business and operational models, but also the way citizens engage with one another and with those that govern them. That is the area that, I believe, interests us most and informs the theme of this conference. Therefore, while I know a thing or two about the disruptive nature of social media to the media landscape generally, I would like to focus more on their wider impact on society and, in particular, their ability to mobilise action against the status quo.
The conventional wisdom is that social media have made it easier for millions of people connected through these networks to mobilise for (and ostensibly lead to) collective action. From Kamuli to Casablanca, Bamako to Bolivia, we can at once all proclaim that #BlackLivesMatter or transform into #JeSuisCharlie or simply try to #SaveCarol, something I shall return to.
Others, however, argue that the role of these technological changes in the success of transformational movements has been greatly exaggerated. Before we seek to examine local examples, it is necessary to refer to some of the scholarship that has gone into this subject. In particular, scholarship that seeks to understand the Arab Spring and examine the relationship between Mohamed Bouazizi, the humble market vendor, his desperate self-immolation, and the subsequent uprisings that swept from power entrenched regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and changed the Arab world in fundamental ways.
In their study on social media and the Arab Spring, three scholars led by Gadi Wolfsfeld provided a theoretical framework that is instructive, and which I will rely on. Their first premise is that “we cannot understand the role of social media in collective action without first taking into account the political environment within which they operate”. The second premise is that “a significant increase in the use of new media is much more likely to follow a significant amount of protest activity than to precede it”.
Now let us try to localise this frameworks to our reality in Uganda and I propose to test them against three major forms of popular protest: the September 2009 Kayunga or Buganda Riots; the Walk to Work protests in 2011; and the popular actions around and after the 2016 elections.
But first, a disclaimer: social media are still relatively new in Uganda (as we make our slow, tentative progress to middle income status) and there is insufficient data or scholarship on which to build concrete arguments. For
instance, although Twitter, seen as one of the key mobilisational tools, has been around since March 2006, by the time of the Kayunga Riots it was a rather new medium in Uganda and not a key player. I had to check last night for when I joined it and was rather relieved to know it was a few months before the riots.
Yet this allows us to use the Kayunga Riots as a control measure in this social experiment, as we examine the cause-and-effect relationship between popular protests and the media. Those riots had been preceded by many months of growing tensions between the Central Government and the Buganda Government. The bitter taste of the controversial 2006 general elections and the lifting of the presidential term limits that preceded it were still fresh in the memory.
There was a clear build up to the events that would follow; the animated rhetoric on all sides and the emergence, overnight, of modern-day kings and princes laying claim to ancient lands and grievances. Yet when violence erupted it was spontaneous and spread out in a manner that remains instructive; reports of protests and violence were reported by primarily traditional media, in particular local-language radios, including CBS radio, fanning new protests and violence in other areas. It remains debatable whether the media fanned the flames, but they certainly did not light the match.
Similarly, the political environment in Uganda in the post-2011 election was ripe for protest. Apart from the disaffection some felt with the election outcome, the ruins of the Kasubi Tombs still smouldering in the minds of others and the rising cost of living triggered by electoral financing activities, created fertile ground for grievances, culminating into the ‘Walk to Work’ protests.
So here we have two protests: the first one spontaneous but not entirely unexpected, the second one with a more formal organisation, but also fuelled, at least initially, by reports of protests feeding through the media to give birth to more protests. It is possible that greater access to social media could have intensified both protests but even without media the political environment was ripe for protest.
One would then be entitled to ask at this point why we have not seen an escalation of protests since Walk to Work, despite growing access to social media tools and the internet? What conditions present in 2009 and 2011 allowed for protests changed in 2016 and ensured relatively low-key protests, even with greater access to social media?
Here, again, the political landscape is illustrative. Jolted by the intensity of the Kayunga Riots as well as the Arab Spring, the authorities in Uganda had taken pre-emptive steps. Passed in August 2013, the Public Order Management Bill had restored wide-ranging powers to the police to control law and order that, critics argue, gave legal cover to undue restrictions to the constitutional freedom of expression, association and political assembly.
The government had also literally closed the physical space for protests by sealing off the Constitutional Square as well as the Ceremonial Grounds in Kampala (which remain under 24-hour armed guard at the time of writing). This tactic had precedents in the Arab world in the wake of the protests there; in Egypt the generals who rolled back the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak ringed Tahrir Square with iron grating. In Bahrain King Hamad dug up the Pearl roundabout that protestors had previously rallied around and erected a traffic light junction instead.
The immediate implication of this is that even as more and more Ugandans get access to social media and the collaborative network effect it offers, they have less and less physical or legal room in which to organise protests and demand for change. The more you know the less you are able to do anything about it, beyond liking, retweeting and tagging.
A quick discourse analysis of selected social media channels and mobilisation efforts in Uganda reveals interesting social and political dilemmas. The furore over the broken cancer machine at Mulago Hospital, for instance, or over bad roads, and other daily gripes, shows the inability of institutions to quickly adjust government policies and actions to the demands of the people.
Politically, it reveals evidence of what scholars term the cultural incongruence hypothesis – the gap between the people’s desired level of democratic values and the country’s actual level of democracy.
Yet the nature of the political environment has created a semblance of the catch-22 that Wolfsfeld et al (2013) describe where the people with the greatest need to mobilise against their governments find it most difficult to exploit the new media. If one were to map the venues of popular protests and overlay them with nodes of social media activity, I suspect that this discrepancy would become very clear.
The protests we see are not only predominantly in urban and peri-urban areas, but also within the lower-income neighbourhoods, far removed, if I might say, from the cappuccino-sipping Twitterati who are more likely to use their internet access for entertainment and to keep in touch with friends.
Needless to say, this cyber impotence is more pronounced when the government chooses to pull the plug on social media whenever it feels threatened by citizen anger and is unable to mobilise sufficient intellectual bandwidth to provide a coherent counter argument. This has happened twice in 2016, and counting.
The second premise – that a significant increase in the use of new media is much more likely to follow a significant amount of protest activity than to precede it – is also evident in the two recent incidents of the government pulling the plug on social media; the response wasn’t a march in the streets to demand access, but a surge in downloads of virtual private networks to bypass the blockade.
This suggests that as more and more people take up protests, even civil ones in cyberspace, they will attract more and more people to join social media, not necessarily vice versa. This is an important lesson for those who seek to
clampdown on social (and traditional) media; the solution is to address the causes of protest, not to throttle the medium.
But for those interested in using social media to transform society, the message is clear: the authorities have taken the analogue restrictions on the media into cyberspace. With social media as with traditional media, citizens are playing defence. And those in power have the serve.
Writing about the political power of social media in 2010, Clay Shirky warned of the danger of politicising the internet, for instance with allegations of activists being funded by faceless foreign enemies, in order for non-democratic regimes to try and block access, thereby undermining the possibility of the internet and social media building an active civil society and forging an alternative path to democratisation.
Indeed while the Ugandan government has taken some positive steps towards increasing access and reducing the cost of connectivity, for instance through the Rural Communication Fund, most of its interventions, however, have been in the general direction of controlling access or monitoring those in these social networks, with punitive intent.
Let’s pause here for a second to sum up the argument so far. We have seen that the political environment shapes the form and function of social media and any collective action they facilitate. And we have seen that protests move people to social media, rather than social media moving people to protests, and that the objective conditions on the ground, and the response of those in power, then determine whether that fans more protests.
We have seen a negative correlation between the intensity of protests in the last decade and growing access to social media and have hypothesised that this is, at least in part, due to the closing down of physical space, the imposition of legal restrictions on protest, the resolution of some underlying factors, such as the relations between Buganda and the Central government, and the clamping down on social media themselves. In other words, we have seen what transformations social media have NOT done.
So what transformations can we see?
First, as many employers will tell you, social media is the silent thief of corporate time, the crouching tiger devouring the attention of employees, the hidden dragon slicing through productivity.
Almost 20 years ago while starting out as a journalist, it was easy to see the singles and married couples in the morning traffic. If they were talking to each other, they were dating. If they weren’t talking, they were married. These days no one talks to anyone; there’s Whatsapp for that! We don’t look at each other in the eye; there is Instagram for that.
Yet it has also provided opportunities for businesses, both big and small, to be seen, and for them to have conversations with potential customers. Beyond turning us all into socially awkward misfits, social media have had some profound impacts on society and power relations. Social media have democratised the space for citizen engagement and given the governed the opportunity to directly challenge those that govern them. Former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi was one of the first politicians to take to these unchartered waters with #AskthePM question-and-a nswer sessions. Regardless of whether one cynically sees it as politicking or not, the idea of an ordinary citizen asking a senior government official direct questions in a public forum is fairly revolutionary in Ugandan society.
Asking questions does not always get you answers, mind, at least not directly, as my friend Thomas Ddumba recently discovered during URA’s #AsktheCG, but it is a start – and an important one.
Giving every citizen the power to publish, as social media do, is not without its problems, from violation of privacy to publication of unverified or deliberately distorted information. We used to live in a world where you didn’t believe anything until the government denied it; we now live in a world where it is hard to believe anything!
In fact, this distortion of reality and the lack of credibility in the vast social media jungle could explain why the leading social media accounts in Uganda remain those associated with traditional media houses, which helps to maintain the dominant narrative that social media are supposed to challenge.
We have also seen how social media reduce the transaction costs of mobilising collective action. For instance, my friend Esther Kalenzi runs the 40Days over 40Smiles non-profit, which builds stuff for children in need. It is a fantastic little outfit with great people doing great things, but I am constantly trying to get Esther and her friends (and annoying them in the process) to stop doing the soft, fluffy things that warm the heart and start asking the hard questions that annoy those in power, such as why the taxes we pay go to pay for luxury cars for those in power, such as why the taxes we pay go to pay for luxury cars for ministers and MPs instead of building classrooms and giving school children a warm meal. #OurMoney!
To be fair, 40_40, #SaveCarol and similar initiatives facilitated by social media mobilisation are imperfect responses to an imperfect terrain. While they are altruistic, benevolent and carried out with the best intentions, they are actually symptoms of weak, not strong, citizen agency. We all know that the best response to the pathetic state of Ugandan hospitals, for example, is not to fundraise for the odd patient whose story happens to galvanise public attention, but to demand for a national health insurance scheme that works.
Yet social media campaigns allow us to remind ourselves of our humanity, to tithe away our social conscience, to outsource our citizen agency with a dose of mobile money here, a retweet there. Social media are powerful tools for low-cost recruitment and fundraising but they can also be the deceptively soothing balm that blinds us to injustice, making us impotent to impunity.
Where is the justice for Abigail, the 2-year-old shot dead by a security operative in Masaka in 2011, or Saidi Lutaaya, whose inquest remains pending almost a decade after his death, despite being ordered by a judge? Or the dozens of Ugandans tortured or subjected to worse by the security agencies supposed to protect them? Where do dead #hashtags go?
Let me now conclude with some broad-brush observations.
First, information wants to be free. We have seen this on the global scale with Wikileaks, the Snowden leaks and most recently, the Panama Papers. The notion of leaking of official documents isn’t new in and of itself, as we saw with the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War in the United States of America many years ago. However, the nature of some of these leaks, which completely by-pass the mediatory space of traditional media, is revolutionary and will be more so when, not if, it starts in undemocratic and repressive states.
Secondly, several studies have shown that citizens who use the Internet are more likely to demand democratic governance, although overall rates of national internet penetration do not always correlate with more demand for democracy from citizens.
Research suggests that, “Internet use may play a more meaningful role in strengthening and enhancing young democracies through impacting citizen attitudes rather than promoting outright democratic transitions among
autocratic regimes.” Thus social media should be seen as facilitators of protest rather than causes, spaces for enlightenment rather than dark forces for regime change. As more and more people come online in Uganda and other poorer countries with less penetration, more and more people will demand for better governance, rule of law and increased accountability. Brace yourselves, I daresay, to those in charge of controlling the public narrative.
Third, social media are not an end in themselves. They only help transform societies when certain conditions are present, including a moderate to high level of internet penetration, some form of at least partially democratic regimes, and a high demand from citizens for deeper democracy. It doesn’t matter how many retweets you get if you don’t get out and vote!
Offline activism is as important, if not more, than online engagement. As we’ve seen with the Balai Citoyen and Firimbi citizen movements in Burkina Faso and DR Congo respectively, mobilisation can take place in the ether of cyberspace but the real struggle must take place in the real world. In fact, the writer Malcolm Gladwell has argued that the internet is far more likely to create weak ties than the strong ties that are necessary for the success of costly political action. It is hard to protest in the streets with a Facebook friend you’ve never met in real life.
We must recognise the transformative power of social media but we must neither exaggerate it nor take it for granted. It is a tool that must be harnessed, sharpened and set against the right tasks, something conferences such as these can help us with.
Let me finish on a lighter note. I decided to check out the Google zeitgeist for Uganda for 2015 – basically a summary of what Ugandans searched for most that year. This was one of the most political years, preceding a tightly contested election, and that witnessed a falling out in the ruling party. Yet the top current affairs searches were about Pope Francis in Uganda – fair enough, MAMA Awards, Charlie Hebdo, Syria, Burundi Coup and Mayweather vs Pacquiao.
This suggested to me that we get local news from local news sources and, thus having no need to search for them, use our searches for global news events, right?
So I looked at the “how-to” search list. Among the top 10 were such profound queries as: how to calculate pregnancy months; how to join the illuminati in Uganda and – wait for it, this one offers some food for thought – how to make mandazi!
There is a lot of work to be done, ladies and gentlemen, if the revolution is to be tweeted!