The Chris Kabwato Column | Social media and the arrival of the ‘barbarians’

It could have been some 15 years ago when my parents made an earnest request during a long-distance call: “People are telling us things and when we ask them, they say ‘we saw it on Facebook’. Can you please arrange that we have Facebook too?” 

This was not a plea to be dismissed given the old folks obsession with news and current affairs. At that time, Facebook was evolving into that worldwide maze of communities – former schoolmates connecting, lost loves rekindled, dating and sharing daily diaries.

Those on Twitter jealously guarded the tyranny of 140 characters and derided Facebook as the place for the crass and wordy people. Twitter was for the refined and rational elites who posted breaking news, considered opinion, and tagged their friends with photos of their bourgeois lifestyles (red wine and whisky, airport lounges, boarding tickets, and swimming pools). But something seemed to break in the FB world and the mob crossed over. At the same time Twitter changed to 280 characters and then a lot more to allow people like a certain former Deputy Prime Minister, a certain black Joseph Goebbels, and a certain two-faced narcissist to ramble. And with some eccentric billionaire buying X, things became even more interesting.

The barbarians enter the gate

One of Africa’s foremost writers and intellectuals, Wole Soyinka, was quoted recently lamenting the state of political discourse in Nigerian social media.

“I don’t deal in social media. As far as I’m concerned, barbarians have taken over social media and they have swapped the intellectual quotient which used to make and still makes social media valid in other societies. Here in this country, social media has been dragged down to the lowest common denominator,” said Soyinka.

The term “barbarian” has an interesting etymology (please bear with me as I do a Chris Mutsvangwa on you). It has its roots in ancient Greek where those who did not speak the “classical” language were considered foreign and lesser beings. Fast forward to the current pejorative usage which infers an uncouth person – a savage.

The basic assumptions that Soyinka and us who consider themselves intellectuals echo German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and his idealistic notion of the ‘public sphere’ – that space between the state and society where we all gather and enter into discourse. In this space, so it assumed, we engage rationally around issues and the best ideas are adopted and implemented. In its early days, Twitter certainly had that kind of cache of polite engagement. But it was also an illusion – for the majority, data was expensive, and you could get your news and information from radio, TV and newspapers. On the other hand, the former liberation movements now governing parties just went on their business of looting and mismanaging. They shook off the Twitter water off their backs.

When the empire strikes back

Once upon a time you could swear on the truthfulness of a story by simply stating: “I heard it on BBC.” The voice of that then venerable institution was akin to the voice of certain ancient texts – depending on your faith. However, armed with data bundles and social media accounts the Empire began to note the bias and the omissions. They began to speak back and have been doing so for a decade and a half. In that tussling in the mud, truth has fled through the window and left the field open to half-truths, lies, and propaganda.

Bigotry has raised its head, ranging from the Andrew Tate School of Masculinity to the declaration of Christian ‘Nationhood’, and to the assault on the rights of sexual minorities. Crying in hoarse voices about the need to reject foreign influences, the evangelical fundamentalists have decided the indigenous authority is their bible. Woe to anyone that dares to stand for human rights in the fundamental sense of what they mean. If irony was a person…

A messy people in a messy world

In a changed world where the Great Unwashed have a voice, the school principals amongst us have an opinion on what social media represents and what should be done. Overzealous politicians and tyrants would love to muzzle our voices. Parents would like the technology platforms such as Facebook held liable for behavioural effects on the children and youths. Whatever the solution, the truth is you cannot be a defender of free speech and then set parameters on what kind of speech is acceptable to you without reference to the standards set in global conventions. There is no right to incite violence against a people, however defined, simply because your religious sect is offended by what people are.

Huge battles lie ahead in the billionaires’ gardens where we cavort and fight on a daily basis whilst making that former South African and that eerie Havard nerd richer and richer.