By Abdulai Mansaray
The internet was seen as the best thing to happen to mankind since slice bread. That notion has become increasingly so, since social media got in the mix. No need to catalogue the value of the internet in terms of information technology; as this has shrunk the world and continues to miniaturise it into a global village. In those days, the duty, which was considered sacred, to inform, educate and entertain the world was the preserve of the few. Media houses and information feeds were clutched in the hands of the few; who guarded this with the ferocity of a lactating leopard. This noble role to satiate the appetite of the public with its insatiable appetite for information had eventually become the soft power tool of those who owned and paid the pipers to controlled and call the tunes. In effect, they chose what and when the information was suitably distilled for human consumption.
It goes without saying that those were the days when the main life support machine for any politician was a friendly fire relationship with the media. The media decided who was elected and deposed. Technically, the media was God’s deputy on earth; just by the stroke of the pen, which many adored as mightier than the sword. But you can’t say the same for the media today. The days when world events were determined by desktop journalism are nearly over. “Journalists are now springing from every corner; thanks to the advent of the internet and its social media offshoot. With a smartphone, some data or Wi-Fi, you are guaranteed your 15 minutes of fame or one hour of notoriety. The mainstream media has now found itself competing face to face, in the whirlwind of the ever-changing news landscape with social media. The mainstream media and especially the print version are forced to do catch up; if it is to retain any relevance to society. Sadly today, if a kingfisher catches a fish, you can bet your bottom dollar that today’s media will headline it as “A brave bird has saved a fish from drowning”.
Many may see this as the world’s new found wealth in information, while others will rather pay attention to the poverty of thought that is permeating the psyche of us all. There is no denying the beauty and monumental benefits of this new age media frontline. Not only has this eased the communication gridlocks of yesteryears but has also given the speed of thought and contact. Sadly, and very sadly, TRUTH HAS BECOME THE FIRST CAUSALTY. As the information highway continues to be gridlocked by competing factions, the inevitable has become very real. This has led to new norms, and new forms of information and precisely NEWS. The news has developed an extended family, and we now have Infomercials, Infowars, and chief among them, FAKE NEWS.
We all know that most conspiracy theories are born to fill communication vacuums. The disciples of conspiracy theories will always have you believe that there is no smoke without fire. Interestingly, their competitors, in their desperate search to dismiss them will summarily class them as Fake News; hoping that in one fell swoop the “rumours” will go away. Unfortunately for them, such theories have been gaining so much traction these days; especially so on social media, that it is no longer enough to swathe them with the tag “Fake News”. The corresponding balance and shift of power, to educate, inform and entertain has since led to many governments generating new departments to fight the scourge of “misinformation”. In those days, governments had their “Squealers” and propagandists to breast feed the populace with their own brand of information and enlightenment; knowing full well that knowledge is power. Since they are now losing control of that knowledge, it stands to reason that in order to seize the initiative, governments around the world are now designating Rapid Rebuttal teams as info maniacs, to tackle these newfound wars.
And that is where the irony of “Truth” as the “Truth” becomes a glaringly and nauseating joke. The advent of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest and most recently Tic Tok; to name but a few were all hailed as the playground for freedom of speech. With unfettered access, it has now become the Wild West for information. “Fake news”, Computer Generated Images (CGIs) and many more have become the perennial tenants of social media warehouses. The inherent dangers of “fake news” cannot be overstated.
Interestingly, the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world are slowly but surely becoming the virtual custodians of the information highway. They now find themselves at the centre of deciding what you and I can read on their social media platforms. The drive to sanitise “fake news” from “news”, sorry “true news” has never been more imperative. Is it surprising that these media outlets are now employing the truth serum syndrome called “FACT CHECKING, to distil the information we are allowed to consume? Who decides what is a fact?
WhatsApp restricted the number of shares to “you can only share with up to five chats”. Since the upsurge in the traffic and faced with the “threat” it has recently but selectively become “messages with > (forward sign) have been forwarded many times and can only be shared with up to one chat at a time”. Mass dissemination cauterised. As these social media platforms engage in paucity of information, what are these restrictions based on; veracity, popularity, political palatability, ideological congruence or religious and cultural conviviality? If so, who decides what is palatable or not? Are you thinking what I am thinking? Does censorship by stealth come to mind here?
So, while the world is experiencing an overdose of and wealth in information, is it also at risk of metamorphosizing into one that is drenched in poverty of thought? So, who decides what needs circulation or not? What are the yardsticks to determine these? There is no doubt that we all need some serious insulation against fake news, but who deicides what is fake and what is not? How much forensic scrutiny goes into such distillation or sanitisation? Or are we just witnessing the news being quarantined; and in effect democracy?
Some may be reluctant to call this censorship. If you have another name for such, please let me know. What this tells us is that social media had provided the shackles from packaged information. But this genie has now presented so much threat to world order, that those in charge of the world order are fighting back to wrest control. New phrases like “taken down”, blocked””, “removed or suspended accounts” are fast becoming media savvy vocabulary.
Are we seeing the “truth” about the “truth” dressed in robes of censorship? But with social media fast becoming central to all our political processes and daily lives, are our lives being censored via social media; which has become next to the air we breathe? Will this new form of censorship become the new art of literal lynching, or is it just a reflection of our lack of confidence as a society?
Truth is not for comfort-its for liberation. Sadly sometimes, it can be a killer.
Don’t forget to turn the lights off when you leave the room.