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The Why and how approach in regulating social media in a democratic-Sierra Leone

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The Why and how approach in regulating social media in a democratic-Sierra Leone

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I have listened patiently to many media and civil society professionals on their stance on this new trend of communication. The Minister Of Information and Communication Mohamed Bangura has been a key player in promoting the ideas of the government – that they will do all they can as a government to regulate the use of social media before the forthcoming 2018 Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Council Elections. Also, the Head of Department at the Mass Communications Department, Fourah Bay College – Tonya Musa who has vast knowledge in Information Communication Technology believes that before government regulates this new brand in communication, there are many democratic frameworks they should have put in place for it to become reality. Taking into consideration that social media has no laws that governs it.

 Well, before I go into this discourse proper, many people have been using this new platform without knowing its meanings and importance.
Social media services introduce a challenge of definition. The idea that social media are defined by their ability to bring people together has been seen as too broad. The terminology is unclear, with some referring to social media as social networks.

During Web 1.0, users were only allowed to read information but they can’t download or upload contents. Social media are Web 2.0 which gives birth to Internet-based applications like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and many more. It also makes the opportunity for users to develop their own contents by uploading and downloading materials from those applications.
User-generated content (UGC) is the lifeblood of the social media organism,
users create service-specific profiles for the sites or apps that are designed and maintained by the social media organization,
social media facilitates the development of online social networks by connecting a user’s profile with those of other individuals or groups.

In 2016, Merriam-Webster defined social media as “Forms of electronic communication (such as Web sites) through which people create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, etc.” Social media are computer-mediated technologies that facilitate the creation and sharing of information, ideas, career interests and other forms of expression via virtual communities and networks. Well, I can sense the smile in your face because you are now abreast with the true meaning of Social Media. Relax a bit so that I will ride with you to the impacts of Social Media in our contemporary worldview.

Impact in general is said to be positive or negative. Thus, Social Media has both aspects. First, let’s touch on the positive part.

According to Marshall McLuhan, a popular communication expert, “The world would become a global village when men will navigate the world in few minutes.” Today, we have seen that assertion from virtuality to reality. This trend has eradicated time and space and it makes physical presence has no room as a barrier to communication.

Social media uses web-based technologies, desktop computers and mobile technologies (e.g., smartphones and tablet computers) to create highly interactive platforms through which individuals, communities and organizations can share, co-create, discuss, and modify user-generated content or pre-made content posted online. They introduce substantial and pervasive changes to communication between businesses, organizations, communities and individuals. Social media changes the way individuals and large organizations communicate. These changes are the focus of the emerging field of technoself studies. Social media differ from paper-based media (e.g., magazines and newspapers) or traditional electronic media such as TV and radio broadcasting in many ways, including quality, reach, frequency, interactivity, usability, immediacy, and permanence. Social media operates in a dialogic transmission system (many sources to many receivers).

This is in contrast to traditional media which operates under a monologic transmission model (one source to many receivers), such as a paper newspaper which is delivered to many subscribers or a radio station which broadcasts the same programs to an entire city. Some of the most popular social media websites are Baidu Tieba, Facebook (and its associated Facebook Messenger), Gab, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, Viber, WeChat, Weibo, WhatsApp, Wikia, and YouTube. Only few of these sites are used by Sierra Leoneans. WhatsApp and Facebook are the most famous in world. These social media websites have more than 100,000,000 registered users.

Before now, the lecturer or teacher was the sole owner of knowledge. What he teaches is what students deduct and comprehend for exams. Now is not the case. Through the advent of social media sites, Students can navigate the internet and share knowledge with their tutors in class. Thus, social has hepled the learning environment to be reciprocal. For many higher educational levels, lecturers create groups where they teach online. This i really impacting the lives of students and lessen the borden of the lecturers in the learning environment. Social media has helped companies to advert their products on various sites so that consumers will be attracted. Even advocacy groups send in their campaign messages in audio and video formats for the public to know what are the issues trending in country.

When you look at the concept of awareness raising and campaigns, social media has been a key tool in changing the percept of how things happen. In 2011 of Arab Spring uprising, we all saw what happened in those Arab countries who were ruling their nation badly. Because of the active use of social media by the youth in those Arab countries, we saw many regime changed. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and others went to democratic system of governance while Syria and Yamen, the war is still on and social media is still playing its mark in exposing the evil deeds of those wicked politicians.

Furthermore, social media has helped greatly in disseminating news contents. In Sierra Leone, people report the news quickly than the traditional media. Whenever incidents like rape, fire, flooding et.el occur in a particular community, we get the news form these sites quicker than seeing them on the news. Even official meetings that are taking place in State House, Parliament, Ministries and other Agencies, they are being broadcast in social media sites before seeing them on the daily mails or TV. This new trend of reporting the news faster has given rise to Citizenry Journalism. We all saw what happened in May 2014 when our country was badly hit by the Ebola virus. It was a strang phenomenon, but through the help of massive sensitisation of medical warnings about the virus on social media platforms, we were able to win the fight.

With a new shift in the communication landscape in the world, many school of thoughts have argued that social media has many negative impacts than the positive. Well, I will look at few of these mayhem practices.

One key negative impact that has proliferating in social media is the distortion of fake news. Fake news reporting is the order of the day in Sierra Leone and even the world at large. This has become unbearable to the extent that everyday you hear news about different personalities are either dead or engage in accidents. Few weeks ago there was a distorted news going round in whatsapp groups claiming that a renowned Nigerian actor Ramsey Noah is dead. The other time it was Van Viker. May God! Those people are living their normal lives peacefully and we are killing them virtually. Another incident which was taken into consideration was when a fake list was published on social media naming innocent girls as HIV-AIDS positives as it was done by Marie Stopes Sierra Leone. Except when Marie Stopes came out with a press release making their submission as a distorted news. Such action was very misleading and could even lead to many lost of lives because of stigmatisation.
In addendum, Cyber bullying has been the new trend in discrimination among users. For many, cyber bullying is a new phrase. Thus, I will give a snappy explaination about it. It is a strange concept in Sierra Leone, but it is very common in developed countries. Cyber bullying is when internet users are discriminating people through the network. Such cyber bullying are, provocative words, death threat, character assassination and malicious postings, harassment and many more.

Currently, about half of young adults have been cyberbullied and of those, 20 percent said that they have been cyberbullied regularly. Another survey was carried out among 7th grade students in America which is known as the Precaution Process Adoption Model. According the survey, 69 percent of 7th grade students claim to have experienced cyberbullying and this is the kind that it is worse than face to face bullying. Secretly, cyber bullying is hacking in our society. Many are aware but they don’t know its implications. Many WhatsApp and Facebook users take snapshot of people’s writing errors and share them on different groups in the habit of making mockery out of it. But many who are victims of such suffering are mostly afraid to belong after facing such bashment form society. I am in different groups where government officials, politicians, civil society advocates et.el. and in those groups, most of what is discussed is politicking that leads to character assassination, malicious libel and invectives. Few weeks back when the Minister of Information and Communication was interviewed on Radio Democracy about the health status of our country. Even though he tried in defending his government, but the society sees him as he could not deliver well and he received many bashment and invectives from social media. This new public sphere has wiped out respect for elders in society. Even in some groups where religious leaders are, you will see some bad eggs sending pornographic materials (vidoes and pictures) what a shame.

As I close on the negative impact, another plausible negativism in using social media is the level of time spent by users. This is the reason why the reading habit has gone so low among citizens. The Young and elders don’t like reading lengthy literature works these day’s. They prefer spending time chatting on these sites for over five Hours and spend in reading. Alas! Standards are falling. That’s is why most students are not performing well in school and tertiary institutions. Some Graduates cannot write proper English Language. Lord have mercy on our generation.

If the government of Sierra Leone is calling for the regulation of Social Media, there are many parameters they should put in place in other to achieve such. If this must be done, we must bear in mind that we are living in a democratic society where we are governed by laws. Even though it’s a free society, we have our rights to freedom, association and to know and exchange ideas and views. This is what Jürgen Habermas pinpointed on the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in 1962. The notion of the “public sphere” began evolving during the Renaissance in Western Europe. Brought on partially by merchants’ need for accurate information about distant markets as well as by the growth of democracy and individual liberty and popular sovereignty, the public sphere was a place between private individuals and government authorities in which people could meet and have critical debates about public matters. Such discussions served as a counterweight to political authority and happened physically in face-to-face meetings in coffee houses and cafes and public squares as well as in the media in letters, books, drama, and art. Habermas saw a vibrant public sphere as a positive force keeping authorities within bounds lest their rulings be ridiculed. According to David Randall, “In Habermasian theory, the bourgeois public sphere was preceded by a literary public sphere whose favored genres revealed the interiority of the self and emphasized an audience-oriented subjectivity.” This notion has given the rise for many citizens on social media sites to criticize on daily happenings of the country.

As a democratic society that believes in dialogue based and facilitating decision making, we should ask ourselves why the government wants to regulate this new media.

Well, as a communication student who believes in research, I have observed the following trends why government is yearning to regulate it.

Public Safety and National security is at threat. It is not a secret that our beloved nation had gone through 11 years of senseless brutal civil war. We know how that war has affected our society from education, health, infrastructure, good governance, corruption and many other predicaments. Everyday our nation is being threatened by distorted news ranging from the fours corners of the state. Few months ago citizens were in disarray when rumours roaming on social media groups that in the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone, there are people well armed and they are ready to invade the nation. The above falsity prompted the Minister of Information and Communication to be in many media houses in condemning such news.

Also, people’s privacy has been a major challenge ever since social media laid its heart in the land. In many groups we have seen messages posted by users that have the tendency to create dilema in the land. Most people don’t have respect for one another. There are lot of things that should be seen at the backstage, but because of lack of people’s privacy, we are seeing those unforseen things. You will see uaers just send in discomforted pornographic materials in groups. What pains me more is when people send all sort of messages that have no meanings to the group.

Another “why aspect” of this discourse is public morality. Our nation is built upon religious tolerance. We are known to uphold, maintain and defend our religion. Respect for religious leaders and traditional leaders is a paramount concern for every Sierra Leonean irrespective of status in life. But now, Alas! The nation has changed its garment. People bash eachother regardless of our moral guarantors beene around. I have been in groups where respectable people are, but because of politicking and tribalism, people use invectives on one another. My God! Where are we heading to? Are we losing our secared culture all because of social media?

Having looked at the “why approach” of regulating this new phenomenon in our nation, we have to consider the “How approach” as well. As a democratic state, government has to consider these indicators to help maintain the hazardous ways of navigating the social media. Such as enhancing civil dialogue for best practice. Government needs to engage civil society advocates, business people, students, moral guarantors and many other facets in asking them ways citizens can handling well and protect the usage of these sites.

Also, promoting media literacy campaigns would be a better practice to minimise the harmful usage of social media. Since the media has the power to mediate and facilitate society, it would be wiser if government bring up discussion radio and TV shows that will be specifically for guiding citizens on how to use social media and by extension the internet. This initiative will lessen the rise of distorted news proliferating in the country. In addition, government should also create avenue where the Ministry of Information and Communication through the Outreach Coordination Committee to organize schools to schools sensitisation of the impacts of social media in Sierra Leone.

Awareness raising also will allow many users to stop navigating the internet wrongly. It was blueprint evidence of the role played by social media during the Ebola fight in our country. Educational messages were shared through WhatsApp, Facebook etc to advice the public on how they could prevent themselves from contacting the disease. If such platform is catered for social media users, I believe the high rate of wrong posting and using would be minimized. The above suggested ideas are yet to be established by an institution in Sierra Leone. I believe local non governmental agencies operating in Sierra Leone will chip in.

From the democratic from work, I will end this discourse on the authoritarian framework. This framework is seen when a particular government is adamant to listen to the views of the people. Then, they will go in the authoritarian angle and if it is taken, there are many challenges that could befall. Hope our leaders will not act like such.

Since users of social media are persistently using the media as a yardstick to disturb the peace among right thinking members of society, the government will increase the tarrif. In increasing the tarrif, it will aid a bit of users spending time in using these sites. The government will succeed but not 60% because some users will sacrifice their money and subscribe no matter the cost. They will either sleep hungry than not using these sites. Well such authoritarian framework will only benefits the rich and suffers the poor.

Taking into the high spate in which the nation is trending in communication information and technology, government may go with the idea of policing the network. In policing the network, government needs to employ telecommunication experts who would be surveillancing the internet so that they will hack any insightful, invectives, malicious and assassinating messages that have the propensity to cause mayhem in the country. I think such resolution will be a step in the right direction if taken.

Furthermore, government will take the bull by the horn by criminalising and prosecuting perpetrators of such act. We know there are no laws domesticated to crimanalise any perpetrator of posting hazardous materials but there are already established laws in Sierra Leone which can hold one into account found wanting by the law. Viz; the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone, The Independent Media Commission Act of 2000 and its Code of Practice, The 1965 Public Order Act and many other laws. As I write, many users have been criminalised by our local laws bacause of insightful messages, malicious libel and other actions done on these social media platforms.

As I close, the last authoritarian framework the government might want to implement is the cracking or shutting down the network. This framework has been implemented in many countries in the world. During the Arab Spring, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and many more cracked down the network because their government thought it wise that its citizens are sending misleading messages to the outside world. In Morocco last year, the government shutdown social media for few days so that students could resit the University entrance exam. The reason was, the first set of exam questions was leaked all over social media.

“However, one can still argue that it can be controlled giving the presence of cyber security. Social media is somewhat a loose environment and any attempt to censor its datacasting, will be a clampdown on civic right” once asserted by Cyril Donald Barnes.

Cracking the network in Sierra Leone could be a better practice for the government, but come to think of it this way that the presence of cyber security is very expensive to manage. Even in developed countries in the world like US, England, Russia and the like can’t handle it well.

Honestly, Social media is going to erode every barrier set by anyone to get its end. The truth is, it is almost impossible to control because it is virtually in the hands of the people. As a free market place of ideas where users are virtually not socially responsible to any given society because it isn’t operating on a specific demarcation like radio and TV but a public space been created. Thus as citizens, our role is to navigate these sites wisely. It is ours so, let maintain and protect it from bad usage.

I pause still we meet next time.

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