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Time to censor?
Government and the ‘social media generation’
By SEGUN ORUAME

If you are averagely educated, and you own a web enabled mobile phone in any

location within Nigeria, you are likely to follow the news, every new day, from any
of the numerous social networks majorly Facebook and Twitter; or from those
increasingly growing SMS news alerts. News delivery with news reception has changed.
So too the newsman! In the mobile Internet age, almost everyone connected is a news
bearer.

There are over 90 million subscribers in Nigeria’s mobile phone market. All
operators offer mobile Internet service and have, indeed, become the major drivers
of Internet services across Nigeria’s landmass of some 923,768 square kilometers.
More than 20% of their subscribers use mobile Internet services for various reasons;
many of these use the more premium Blackberry services. Virtually all the
subscribers have Facebook and the increasingly popular Twitter accounts. Practically
all of these subscribers log into their accounts in the morning and at night to get
news updates about Nigeria and elsewhere. And practically, all of them have shared
news items in the last 21 days as an eT Intelligence survey shows. It takes less
than N5000 ($50) to acquire a web-enabled mobile handset and less than N50 to get
connected on any of the social networks for a daily flow of interactive news
sharing. Active Twitter users are close to two million in Nigeria and active
Facebook users are in the range of seven million combined.

Africa’s total population estimate as at December 2011 is 1,037,524,058. There were
about 139,875,242 Internet users in Africa as at Dec.31, 2011, a 13.5% penetration
rate and there were about 37,739,380 Facebook users within the same period; a 3.6%
penetration rate. Of Nigeria’s estimated population of 155,215,573 as at December
2011 with a landmass area of 923,768 sq km, there were about 45,039,711 Internet
users as of December 31, 2011, a 29.0% of the population. Facebook users within the
same period stood at 4,369,740, a 2.8% penetration rate. These figures have
expectedly grown exponentially as at June 2012. The potential for social media to
impact heavily is still untapped and but is expected to be explosive in growth in
the few months ahead as broadband access improves massively. A Nigeria with 30
million Twitter and 50 million Facebook users in all likelihood, will radically
change government/citizens engagement and put government permanently on the spot.

No doubt, news making and news sharing via social media networks have serious
implications. First, they define the new boundaries for news gathering and
information dissemination; they are increasingly becoming more influential in
deciding what would constitute public debate at every point in time; they have
capacity to create mass hysteria; and have proven to be an effective tool in
creating mass psychology and mass mobilization. Now, it is becoming glaring that any
government or business organisations that ignore social media networks and what
happens there, does so at its own peril. Increasingly, the news get to reach the
critical and general public via a social media window than through the more
controlled and government sanctioned news media.

Within the Nigerian social media space alone, more than 10 million people are fed
information about government, about companies, and about you; everyday and in every
hour updates are likely to appear on you, on government and on several other public
and private institutions. Twitter and Facebook lead with a combined population of
over seven million users. Everyone and anyone can become focus of news in social
media circle. The potential to form public opinion or perception about a person, an
institution or an issue is fast and high.

But often, not all news items shared via social media are true. That is where the
danger lies and perhaps; the hope that traditional media, with its checks and
balances, is likely to thrive for a long time to come. “Social media networks are
helping people to develop interest in news reading and incite more hunger for news.
Social media is no threat but complementary to traditional media,” said Professor
Jenkeri Zakari Okwori, professor of Participatory Development Communication at the
Department of Theatre and Performing Arts, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria
and author of ‘Development Communication and Empowerment: The Use of Theatre in
Nigeria with Lessons of Civic Engagements in the USA.’
“Traditional media is now a check on social media. People are getting to use
traditional media to check the authenticity of news on social media. Therefore,
social media is now complementary to traditional media. As access widens, more
people will have access to social media and by implication the gate-keeping role of
traditional media will increase, said Professor Okwori.

Many governments have plans to surreptitiously check the excesses of social media.
But such plans are not likely to succeed, said Professor Okwori. The internet
operates within an open access framework. It will be a continuous battle on
government’s part to seek to freeze sites regarded as anti-government. The Chinese
government has particularly gained notoriety for this. It spends billions of dollars
and seconds every year to close mass access to sites deemed offensive.

One Open Access advocacy notes: “A recent directive by the Chinese government
requires the installation of a specific filtering software product, Green Dam, with
the publicly stated intent of protecting children from harmful Internet content. The
proposed implementation … would in fact have an influence that extends beyond
helping parents protect their children from age inappropriate material; the
filtering options include blocking of political and religious content normally
associated with the Great Firewall of China, China’s sophisticated national-level
filtering system. If implemented as proposed, the effect would be to increase the
reach of Internet censorship to the edges of the network, adding a new and powerful
control mechanism to the existing filtering system.”

The Nigerian government definitely doesn’t have the kind of sophistication and
political disposition the Chinese government has to checkmating what the citizens
say or hear online. It is also not likely to commit so much resource and willpower
against what its citizens do online particularly within the social networks. But it
can do one thing: join the train to be ‘fast, furious, and intent’ at informing its
citizens on its policies and countering news/gossips that negate its position on
issues and events of national significance as they unfold.
“Social media offers speedy delivery of news. Government’s policies can get to
millions of people easily and fast. Government can use it to disseminate policy
information. Social media networks enable the government to reach out to the
connected instantly. Social media can act as propaganda. The drawback is that there
is no gatekeeper for social media and there is always question of authenticity,”
said Chukwuma Nwosu, head of department, Mass Communications, Igbenedion University
in mid western Nigeria.

What exactly is government afraid of? The lack of authenticity of news via social
media? The capacity of social media to rally citizens for and against government as
the case may be? The tendency of social media to deliver news in real time without
mindful of its implications for national security? The rising influence of social
media among an increasing number of connected citizens particularly those that
constitute the most vibrant segment of the population: the youths? The seeming
frustration of government to control unguarded statements of public importance as
they affect government within the social media space?
During the recent presidential media, President Goodluck Jonathan expressed a degree
of anger and frustration with social media. He noted the penchant by Nigerians to
use social media to criticize his government. The president blamed the social media
largely for what he sees as mis-representations of his policies designed to impact
positively on Nigerians. But he is the first ever sitting president to declare his
re-election bid via social media. Today, he enjoys over 700, 000 social media
followers, particularly on Facebook and tweeter. He also remains the only president
that has sought to engage the citizens digitally by calling for ideas on moving
Nigeria forward via social media.
As blogger Oluwatobi Soyombo notes: “For a very long time, the voice of the Nigerian
populace has not been as loud as it is today, thanks to social media. The recent
‘OccupyNigeria’ was arguably, the most organized and successful rally against the
government in ages, thanks also to social media. The delayed salary of youth corpers
wouldn’t have been noticed by the Minister of Youth Development if not for social
media….social media is simply the voice of the people communicated via technology,
and when you decide to censor this, you’ve just suppressed the voice of the
citizens. Other governments in the world are embracing the Gov 3.0 initiative (Open
Governance).”

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