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Social Media Is Now the Most Dangerous Threat to Africa’s Leaders

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Tuesday, March 1st, 2016
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The 2016 election in Uganda is now in the past and the most consequential job in the land was retained by the incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni.

Thus far, pundits have variously told us what we can learn from the exercise; the presidential debate attended by all candidates including the incumbent; the man’s re-election to a historical fifth term and arresting his arch-rival Kizza Besigye a record five times in eight days.

But what is seminal about this election and a lesson for the wider East Africa is that, unlike in the past, social media came off as far more feared and considered most “dangerous” to the fortunes of the incumbent than traditional media.

The Museveni government didn’t close down a radio or television station, a newspaper or a blog. Instead, on polling day, the government cut off social media: Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and money transfer services.

My point here isn’t that traditional media is no longer important; for Museveni himself acknowledged as much when he revealed that he tried to influence the Daily Monitor ‘s reporting which he accused of “bias” in favour of opposition candidate, Dr Kizza Besigye.

Blaming the Daily Monitor, the president told journalists, “They would put Besigye on top of me. They would use a picture of Besigye, exaggerating rallies and they shrink mine or take away a part. That Monitor here, I have defeated them.”

However, it wasn’t the traditional media that paid the price through closure, but social media.

The reason given by the government for closure is “security.” On the other hand, the opposition reasoned that closure was due to fear of exposing election fraud.

Earlier, the electoral commission had also tried to ban the use of mobile phones and cameras on polling stations. I believe the major reason was the fear of social media being used to mobilise mass demonstration in the aftermath of the vote.

First, it’s true that with a smartphone, evidence could easily be captured if votes were being stolen, which evidence could be relied upon in case outcomes were contested in court.

 Secondly, it was the unspoken word that while the opposition claimed they had entered elections well knowing that the vote would be stolen, the government knew the opposition planned to organise demonstrations in its aftermath, which is what the “defiance campaign” led by Dr Besigye actually meant.

Thus, in such conditions, social media is considered far more “dangerous.” Social media is today’s most effective means of preparing and overseeing demonstrations because it connects thousands, even millions of people and events in seconds; enabling immediate and consequential responses.

In the process, social media has “killed” isolation and apathy or the idea of “I’m alone in this” (for instance injustice). While this takes away the element of fear, it makes social media very effective tool for mobilisation, whether for the good or bad.

And once thousands are on the streets, capturing and sending thousands of images of what’s happening across the world, it’s nearly impossible to stop them. For even if the army and police are sent in, they cannot kill thousands on camera as events in the Arab world demonstrated. In that sense, social media has made the world a truly “global village” and a tool to be feared by oppressors.

Social media is today feared more like leaders in Africa or Latin America feared their militaries in the 1970s and 1980s. For while it’s no longer fashionable for the military to take over or even be accepted once they do, unless you are Egypt, social media can easily lead to the toppling of a dictator if not controlled.

In that sense, Museveni’s government has provided a precedent; expect his peers in the region to adopt it in future.

The good news is that while governments might be able to control service providers and cut off such services, due to the rapidly changing technology, in future, it might be impossible to do so.

Even in the Ugandan elections, people were able to bypass the ban and use virtual private networks. Who knows, with the rapidly changing technology, controlling a determined citizenry may be impossible.

Dr Christopher Kayumba, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the School of Journalism and Communication, the University of Rwanda, and lead consultant at MGC Consult International Ltd, Kay Plaza Building, Kimoronko Road, Kisimenti, Kigali.

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