2018: Focus on social media’s power

Sunday December 31 2017


By Timothy Kalyegira

2017 has come to an end.

Ugandan society has more or less resigned itself to its fate. It was palpable after the vote by Parliament to lift the presidential age limit.

Most people had seen it coming and knew it was only a matter of time. But even when it came, there was such a feeling of helplessness that the population went silent.

It is on a note of complete resignation that 2017 ends for most Ugandans.
The media has acted with some sincerity in this, but has not helped much.

In general, the media views itself as a watchdog whose remit is to hold government accountable.
This is the reason nearly all talk shows on radio and television stations and newspaper columns dwell on the political questions of the day. Most of their guests and panelists are either politicians or media and civil society personalities discussing the political question and the government.
In 2017, precious time was expended discussing and educating the public about the danger of lifting the presidential age limit when all knew well in advance that eventually it would be lifted.

This focus on the political question has had the effect of focusing almost all national attention and discussion on the politics to the neglect of many, many other equally crucial questions.

The media and civil society focus their time, energy and resources on things they cannot do much about, and neglect others they both can and must do something about.

For much of the year, I urged (but was largely ignored) that we start thinking seriously about social media as our only hope of reconstructing and strengthening our society.

I explained why many times, including in this column as recently as last week and once again, to no avail.
A network like Facebook is a self-contained community, with powerful tools and the network effect by which a society can be reorganised.

I argued on Facebook itself that over the last 25 years, government deregulation, the arrival of the Internet, the spread of digital technology and the advent of social media have significantly altered the structure of society everywhere, not just in Uganda.

In the past, the government was the centre of almost every aspect of national life -- the post office, the supermarket foods & beverages, the sole radio and TV stations, the main newspapers, the National Theatre and art gallery, the referral hospitals, primary and secondary schools, phone and fax services.

It really mattered who held political power and who occupied state-run corporations.

Today, the Internet, the private telecom companies, the social media networks and much more have cut government out of the lives of at least half the population.
My wish for 2018 is the same as it was in 2017.

It is for the media, the political class and civil society to take a step back and notice this changed landscape.

We are expecting too much of a government whose role and place in our lives is much reduced from the early 1990s.

There is more power and direct network connection in our hands than most of us realise.
Facebook, I argued in 2017, and will repeat here, is more or less a government, only that it is an exceptionally efficient and advanced government.

No African government, no matter how sincere and good it is, can ever provide its people more direct power and organise them in the way Facebook does.

We must study these digital social networks and try to see where we can use them to engage and organise our society.
The fact that we still can’t see this is much more disturbing to me than the lifting of the presidential age limit.

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