Social media regulation is dead on arrival

Author: Nicholas Sengoba. PHOTO/NMG

What you need to know:

Anti people behaviour by the political class only attracts the wrath of the people who make up the masses on social media

If you listen to most government officials and some ‘purists’ within the mainstream media, we are in the middle of a dire social media crisis.

But they are not alone. Parents, teachers, religious leaders, law enforcement officers and medical practitioners have also raised concerns for obvious reasons.

Besides the very commendable ability to easily share information faster, in a more convenient, timely and cost effective manner, there is a downside.

Irresponsible loose talk, hate speech, breach of privacy, sectarianism, immorality, explicit sexual content, fake news, malice, misinformation, unsubstantiated claims and outright lies come along.

What many, especially politicians, are now calling for as a solution is ‘regulation’. This could mean anything to include laws with punishments if users do not play within given parameters to ensure order, decency and ‘acceptable’ moral standards.

The media has come out strongly for what is seemingly a selfish cause against a ‘rival’, in the business of communication.  Because of the real time nature of messaging on social media, traditional media is now under threat. By the time the newspaper is breaking news it has already been broadcast on social media in its raw form with pictures and all manner of embellishments.

It also comes with what in a traditional newsroom would be considered unethical, like graphic photos and unproven claims used to make a point. The editor is no longer the all knowing viceroy of society who determines what should or should not be read. Because he fears court proceedings and being shut down, for publishing what cannot be proven, the media house will not publish all it knows yet the barefooted shamba boy in Mutukula with access to a smartphone and some data is at liberty to do so.

The established newsroom no longer leads and guides public debate effectively. It is also now one of the many in the middle of an information jungle fighting for space to breathe.  But most important of all, social media threatens the blood supply of established media houses which is sales of both newspapers and advertising space.

As for the politician, his every move is now under scrutiny like never before by a myriad of eyes and ears. In the past when the mainstream media houses ruled the roost, if the politician was not happy that their excesses were exposed, they simply arrested journalists, beat them up,  sued the media house, blackmailed it with denial of advertising revenue or closed it down.

Now they have to contend with a torrent called the masses who, unlike the mainstream media, are scattered in cyberspace, have no fixed address and in many cases no name or reputation to protect. In fact in some cases the more vituperative they are, the more famous and visible they get.

We are living in interesting times where the all powerful fourth estate and the even more authoritative political class have been united by a new challenge for which they both seemingly have no tangible panacea.

Like Chinua Achebe said “Whenever you see a toad jumping in broad daylight, then know that something is after its life.”

Times of crisis have that unlikely characteristic. They bring together strange bedfellows. It is now common to hear voices from the media urging the government ‘to do something’ about social media before it is too late. Before we even contemplate the issue of whether regulation will work, we must ask ourselves how we zeroed in on regulation as the answer.

In times of distress, human nature has the knack to quickly find answers to challenges it has not understood properly.

In the case of the mainstream media before the thought of regulation of social media crops up, there must be a critical examination of the content in the future that attracts readers and followers. It is not enough to say that social media is popular because it has the license to deliver content without bounds and limits.

The starting point should be a thorough examination of content on social media which should be compared to what is served in our newspapers and on radio/tv. A casual look will show that newspapers have insisted on giving a lot of space to politics yet there is a whole world out there whose world is completely far from politics.

For instance, many have settled in the world of sex and sexuality even beyond ‘acceptable’ heterosexual relationships. Then the sort of coitus that prompted President Museveni to caution that the mouth is only ‘for eating’.

You have dominant issues around relationships, lying and cheating. The side ‘chic’ or the side ‘nigger’ is what some ironically claim keeps marriages stable. The sugar daddy/mummy, the lecturer who gives marks for sex. Abortion. Polygamy and how marital time tables work in these arrangements. The new way of discreet high class prostitution by both male and female. The use of crime as a coping strategy for survival.

Many of these issues never get enough space in the papers. And when they do, they don’t get to the heart of the matter thereby capturing the imagination of especially young readers.  There has to be a concerted effort to creatively bring them to the fore without offending the salvation army of moralists.

As for the politician, the thought that everything can be solved by the law is a sure sign that we have a generation that has carried the popular 19th Century thinking of brawn to deal with the 21st Century challenges of the brain.

Social media, like mainstream media, usually concentrates on contemporary issues. The former, more often than not, may take an informal approach of not proving claims or giving a right to reply. But the issue is that they will circle around the issues inconveniencing society at that time.

So if at a certain time we find ourselves in an economic crisis characterized by high commodity prices, that will dominate the space. If the powers that be are deemed insensitive and request for supplementary budgets and increase their own allowances while people die of hunger, social media will be harsh and bare knuckled when venting displeasure, not rules and regulations will stop that.

So before we think about regulating social media we should think about regulating and reforming politics. Anti people behaviour by the political class only attracts the wrath of the people who make up the masses on social media.

Attempts to regulate the way they feel and respond is an effort in futility. It is dead on arrival.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues

Twitter: @nsengoba