ESSAY FRIDAY | Zimbabwe’s toxic online pandemic

(pic: MCZ)

With Chris Chenga

It has been here for a while now! Not the virus that has just caught Zimbabwe; the other pandemic. The one that is highly contagious and grossly toxic – the online pandemic.

At the next Annual General Meeting for Twitter and Facebook shareholders, it would take a smart investor to suggest that the online juggernauts should include ‘will you be a jackass?’ within the sign-up questionnaire for new user accounts.

This method of user screening will likely raise shareholders’ value in these companies as it will quarantine bad apples from overall users seeking fulfilment and enjoyment on the platforms. The long game here is that screening’s desired effect will be to boost the multiple revenue streams for social media companies.

Financial and tech analysts have long expressed concern about the mob culture present on social media that has, among many other things, made parents reduce their children’s online presence and even made more mature users close their accounts in order to avoid the sheer brutality and vitriol that rewards otherwise enthusiastic participation on the platforms.

Very often, online social distancing comes too late, when the damage to users is already done.

Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey have both recently travelled to Africa, overtly expressing excitement in the potential that the continent offers their businesses. They are noticeably ambiguous about where exactly either of them would setup or expand physical operations.

That could be because CEOs do not act on their own discretion; they have stakeholder expectations to manage. Recently, Silver Lake and Elliot Management injected over a billion dollars into Twitter, demanding three new board seats as part of the consideration. It is widely acknowledged by industry analysts that the new seats were included by the private equity partners to ensure that Dorsey pursues a more effective user fulfilment and enjoyment strategy, quickly! He may not end the year as CEO.

Bully playground

Happy users bring in more returns on investment, and apparently Jack hasn’t kept many users as happy as investors would have hoped.

Twitter has always been treading lightly with investors, exactly because of the ‘mosh-pit’ and bullying culture that the company has failed to pacify over the years. The platform has struggled to encourage the continuity of threads, which are assumptively the most pragmatic feature of the public interaction capability that Twitter offers users; direct messaging, for contrast, is deliberately structured for discrete communication.

Mobs and bullies typically disband threads, overcoming the substantive and courteous interaction of which investors have long desired Dorsey to sustain. The same goes for the Facebook comments section. It is stubbornly dominated by mobs and bullies even though the company has deployed many tactics to stem toxicity.

In fact, besides the video quality agitation, Facebook LIVE has struggled because instant vitriol in the comments section has taught brands to stay away from the feature.

Are people generally vile, toxic?

Are people generally bad tempered? That may be too broad a query to place on social media executives like Zuck and Jack. It would be overly nit-picky to hold both of them answerable to the attitudes of each and every node within a network of online communities, especially as these attitudes are consequential to the overall harmony of a universal social media experience.

Silver Lake and Elliot wouldn’t be that obsessive compulsive.

However, it does make business sense to stratify online communities. It is astute capital stewardship for the CEO to appraise the culture of each online country and measure its propensity for toxic, vile traits. While one cannot determine if people are generally bad-natured, vile and toxic, a smart CEO would assess which countries exude these traits more than others.

This is a strategy to guide the investment proposition for each country, especially operational investment.

Twitter, and Facebook, are only going to psychically invest in markets that closely reflect the desired humanity that makes the business of keeping users fulfilled and happy. In this way the social media business is just like the tourism business, where countries compete to be more friendly, welcoming, and hospitable than others.

That one Swedish guy in Switzerland

In February 2018, on a train ride from Zurich to Davos, part of the Zimbabwean delegation heading to the World Economic Forum shared a compartment with a Swedish digital media investor.

This Swedish guy already had interests in South Africa but was expanding into East Africa, cognisant of the prospects of 5G infrastructure development in that region.

A journalist on the Zimbabwean delegation took the opportunity to remind the investor that Zimbabwe was ‘open for business’; implicitly trying to convince the Swede to consider the country.

Politely, as if not to give off a lack of interest or curiosity to the typically warm and friendly Zimbabwean, the Swedish investor took out his mobile device. He skimmed through Twitter using its search features to do an appraisal of the country’s online activity records.

The Swedish gentleman, well into his fifties, was quite adept at using the digital platform, more than the younger journalist. After some scrutiny, there were four key assessments that he articulated to the fascinated journalist:

  • Highly political
  • Intolerant, combative discourse that was dominated by English stress words (he could not comment on vernacular)
  • Key words or popular topics suggested a market with no clear commercial interests
  • Accounts with the largest followers were focal gatherings for mobs and bullies (and these accounts had no indication of commercial interests)

The logic was simple enough for several members of the Zimbabwean delegation who had by now come closer to the two, hoping to understand more.

Mobs and bullies are bad for the digital media business; and Zimbabwe has plenty of those. The Swedish gentleman further went on to explain that not only do mobs and bullies deter user fulfilment and happiness, they depress the standard of information and discourse to globally consequential trending topics, of which Twitter and Facebook depend on as a key component of their overall media value.

Consider it in this context; fake news is bad for business, but so is poor quality discourse and engagement dominating social media during the world’s most important events.

Indeed then, when activist investors pour in over a billion dollars into Twitter, bringing in high expectation for Mr Dorsey to elevate the company’s user fulfilment and happiness, nations looking to tap into some investment should start to reflect on their online humanity, or lack thereof.

Econet founder Strive Masiyiwa and his wife Tsitsi both closed their Twitter accounts, after what Strive saw as online bullying.

Not all markets are equal, nor should they be

It is highly contestable to suggest that a market like Zimbabwe retains a higher volume of bad natured material and lower quality discourse than other markets. Yet, it would be imprudent to find content in mere comparability with others. Not all markets are equal, no should they be.

A Nigerian, South African, or Egyptian market might very well portray as much, if not more, vitriol and bad-natured interaction as Zimbabwe. But, due to other more favourable factors such as market population, economic size, or on-site hardware and infrastructure in these markets, deplorable interaction may be tolerable and, in instances, worth the budget for investment into interventions by Twitter and Facebook.

Zimbabwe has great literacy rates and skilled human capital. However, it cannot compete in structural matters of significance, in comparison with Nigeria, South Africa or Egypt. This means it cannot overlook the repulsion that distasteful online culture has on media investors.

Actually, a smart country that has played very well its cultural intangibles is Rwanda. Rwanda excels in what you could call ‘conduct favourability’. While its economy is neither bigger nor more diverse than several other markets in the East Africa region, global business media such as CNBC Africa and Bloomberg have invested heavily in operations in Kigali, merely on the satisfaction of Rwanda’s conduct. Business stakeholders in the country have displayed the right business culture and conduct themselves in a manner that has superseded more structurally favourable economies.

Citizen responsibility for thought leadership

Besides online censorship, which is increasingly harder to do due to VPNs and similar technology, African governments cannot really do much to enforce a country’s online culture any more than Twitter and Facebook can. There is also the right to free expression to consider.

Citizens themselves can only self-regulate their own conduct on social media. This was perhaps a less obvious nuance of the Arab Spring’s appeal to internet and media investors. The event clearly showed that the internet is sometimes beyond the repression of governments. But it also revealed the extended capacity for ‘democracy’ that social media brings. Democracy in this sense, is of a context of freedom to contest thought and convention!

After the Arab Spring there was excitement in the opportunity for the African market to compete in being at the forefront of internal, and global, thought leadership! Africans often lament about western narratives and stereotypes commanding an unfair priority in defining their identity and concerns.

Well, this was Africa’s moment to snatch the mantle, and investors really concurred; Twitter and Facebook stock values roared this sentiment. The Arab Spring gave hope that African online users would steer discourse around matters of religious tolerance, ethnic and gender diversity, as well as physical portrayals such as dark skin beauty!

There are some countries that have done so well to the point that citizens in different countries have even raised their local personalities to be globally identifiable ambassadors for such causes.

Think of this is similar manner that India and Sweden have supported Malala and Greta, even at the opposition of more powerful forces. A number of countries instead, have indulged social media in mudslinging, criticism, and bringing down their own. For this grouping of countries, it seems like social media executives like Jack Dorsey are taking heat that citizens haven’t stepped up to the opportunity.

Just maybe, the Zimbabwean market can start reflecting on its failure to utilise the platform accordingly.  

Even a picture of a woman with no make up on can dominate discourse, as broadcaster Ruvheneko Parirenyatwa has found out.

The investors’ play on Africa: Coronavirus

Every so often, events of global relevance occur. Never before, however, has social media incontestably occupied the space of immediate awareness and information.

Globally, social media has superseded traditional TV platforms such as BBC and CNN. It has further overtaken medium-wave and short-wave radio, even in many rural areas of the developing world. In fact, key media outlets like Al Jazeera directly source and stream through social media.

Presently, the world is going through a historic pandemic with the coronavirus penetrating African borders in the last few weeks. Social media’s influence is felt more on the continent that any other in terms of spreading awareness and the right information around this disease. This also makes Africa the most vulnerable to misinformation.

Pandemics motivate our impulses of fear and trepidation; which are breeding nests for hateful demagoguery. Thus, the coronavirus is perhaps the greatest event since social media to put on the spotlight different online communities’ ability to not only extend humanity, but thought leadership around an existential issue.

Social media investors are paying close attention.

If indeed there is normalcy to stock markets after this pandemic, it is the online conduct of African countries that will inform and determine investor plays on the continent in the long term. Jack Dorsey will in effect have his commanding guidance as to where to invest in Africa.

Is the Zimbabwean online community doing a great job in regards to spreading the correct information about Covid-19? And, what is the outlook like in more humanistic ideals such as compassion, care, and unity?     

Die: A Zimbabwean twitter user saying a woman who was tested for coronavirus, after returning from China, must die. She tested negative

There are different, quick ways for are casual observer to estimate the spread of quality information on a topic. These range from searching headlines and news under trending topics. Usually prominent and verified accounts get a preference aided by Facebook and Twitter.

These give a quick feel on how a country is analysing and sharing information; revealing both the context and depth of discourse around the subject matter.

Another way is to check reference with accounts that belong to established institutions such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and more local Ministry of Health accounts. The rate of interaction and reference to these sites in a country give an idea of how context and discourse are focused.

Typically, as it is mandate for these institutions to give out expert data and interpretation, assumption is that countries that reference these accounts are better informed.

Would Jack invest in Zimbabwe?

Not to save his job, he won’t!

Unlike other industries, some of the investment decisions by multinational companies involved in digital media are cultural. It is not just resources, infrastructure, or even regulation, factors that are higher up considerations for other sectors. Multinationals in digital media hover the earth looking for the right cultural fit!

A Facebook or Twitter building will be set up according to the culture of the people who can occupy that premise, and manage the products and services that are aligned to that culture. A Facebook or Twitter office in Harare will likely be active in executing the kind of humanity and high discourse policies that investors hope to improve on the platforms.

Indeed, there are some fantastic videos, public notifications, and articles focused on the Corona virus that have been produced Zimbabwe. They broadly range from best health practices, awareness of testing and prevention, as well as general guidance on the most socially responsible conduct during this pandemic.

Establishments on Twitter, such as ZimFact, have stepped up to fight false information around the virus.

The impetus behind this essay is to reflect on the frequency of dissemination and interaction, especially in comparison to deplorable online culture that spreads contrasting impressions. 

My parents, who are avid readers of my essays and serve as first editors of sorts, were not particularly pleased that I have chosen to contextualise what they perceive as ‘human decency’ in a monetary manner. Oddly, they often chastise me for the amount of time I spend on social media, quipping that it would make sense if I worked for Facebook or Twitter!

Well, I can shrug off their objections because I believe that since the age of 16, I have been solely responsible for what I post on social media, which I assume is exactly where you came across this essay.

What about you? How are you contributing to the country’s online culture?