The materials this week are centred on digital media and emerging technologies, and their links with Africa. In episode 4 of Africa Past & Present, Folu Ogundiumu chats mostly about press freedom in Africa. He laments about the extent to which the press in many African countries are not truly “free,” citing that they are often used as tools to further the agendas of political hegemonies. Nevertheless, he recognizes that this challenge is not one peculiar to African countries alone (a direct allusion to the antics of Rupert Murdoch). Furthermore, as Ogundiumu says, the little press freedom that exists is more as a result of indigenous African capital ownership, than as a result of foreign support. This, however, is not to suggest that foreigners do not play a role: much of the technicalities associated with the press do come from abroad. The questions that lingers on from Ogundiumu’s podcast become: how does the African press become more independent of national political factors and international pressures? Is it premature or unfair to conclude that the African press, when compared to the press in more developed countries, lacks the sophistication needed to attain an ideal level of independence?
In Twittering the Boko Haram Uprising in Nigeria, Innocent Chiluwa and Adetunji Adegoke write about the ways in which Nigerians have used Twitter, a microblogging site, to report and discuss the Boko Haram insurgency. We learn from this article about the recent history of Boko Haram (up to 2011), and we learn about the exact processes through which Nigerians use social media, particularly Twitter, in relation to the insurgency. Adegoke and Chiluwa put forward a theory, so to say, of citizen journalism and “pragmatic acts”. Citizen journalism, as its name might imply, refers to the ease with which ordinary people can act in certain situations as journalists. This accessibility and reach of social media makes it easier, as the authors point out, to “champion and mobilize offline social and political protests around the world…” They cite that access to social media has certainly increased citizens’ political participation; I would submit, however, that social media has not increased political participation so much as it has made it “visible.” That is, social media platforms are simply an extension of African oratory culture; the difference, however, is that, especially with sites like Twitter where thoughts and reports are written down and can be revisited and accounted for, it was and is quite difficult to account for things that are spoken. In Nigeria, there is a culture of gossiping and “gisting,” a culture that creates a grapevine through which ideas and sentiments are easily spread. Today in Nigeria (especially for young Nigerians), Twitter serves as the navel of this “gisting” culture. It serves, more importantly, as a contemporary grapevine. The shortcoming, then, is that just as it is likely for a revolution to be sparked from the sentiments expressed in the grapevine, it is also equally likely for mischievous, perilous, and fictitious sentiments and ideas to spread. Hence in that sense, social media serves as a double-edged sword.
One need not look further than the reactions of Nigerians to the Boko Haram insurgency. Many rightfully condemned the terrorist acts and the government’s inefficiency in dealing with it; however, a great many people submitted instead to petty conspiracies that have unfortunately become, through the grapevine, the prevalent rhetoric about the situation.
With social media, Twitter in particular, there is very little room for individual thought to manifest, and it is not difficult for people to detract from the important aspects of a situation, focusing instead on the mundane and frivolous.
Nevertheless, there are ways through which social media can be used creatively and positively. A prominent example is of Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American writer who chronicles the experiences of ordinary Nigerians in informative and creative ways (Google: Teju Cole AND Small Fates).