Beyond the Obvious: Social Media: How is it affecting you?

A few years ago a lone policewoman was seen controlling traffic on one of those busy streets in Lusaka in the midst of showering rains. Her outstanding acts of self-sacrifice were captured by social media and her video went viral. A few days later we heard that the police high command had promoted her. This is one case where social media was used in a positive sense. There was another good story of a teacher who helped to babysit for a mother-pupil who came to school with her baby. She did this so that the young mother could concentrate on her studies. But lately, and in many other cases we have seen social media disturbing the social fabrics and incensing those in authority. Examples are many. We have seen people posting videos of accident victims while doing running commentary as though they are showing us a wrestling match. Again in the recent past we have seen videos and stories of innocent people killed in mistaken identity fuelled by social media frenzy. And now we have gassing cases spreading from one town to the other. Social media has been awash with such stories, some of which involve instant mob justice and other social vices. Such stories are in complete contrast to what we saw about the policewoman working in the rains and the teacher acting as a stand-in mother.

But why is this happening? Why is social media being so trivial and sensational? First and foremost these disturbing pictures and stories we see every day on Facebook and WhatsApp groups are a source of worry to all of us, because some stories and pictures may not be good for everyone. No one wants to see a person writhing in pain as they lose their grip on life. No one wants to see obscene pictures that are meant for private use. As to my take on why social media is giving us hiccups, we are living in a digital world where information is not a preserve of a few. Today everyone can have access to any data and information at the click of a button. I’m fully aware that there is classified information reserved for those who need to know. But I’m also aware that there’s information for the public, especially in trying moments we are in currently. That’s why when something of public interest happens and government or the police are slow in responding, and sometimes even dispute facts on the ground, then we have a problem. For example, up until now we have very little information about who’s behind the gassing cases, who’s funding them, what’s the motive, and several other unanswered queries. Government print and electronic media is equally inept, thus people take to alternative source of information, that’s private media and social media. Private media is flexible. They tell us what needs to be told and not what authorities want us to know. Social media is worse and out of control. Since everyone today has a smart phone that can take pictures and they are able to type a few words, they feel duty bound to write something and post it on any platform. That’s why government seems to be in a quandary. When something unpleasant happens, they hope it’ll stop on its own and may be die naturally. The story of 48 houses that built themselves. The story of the big black rings. The story of our Kwacha against the dollar. The story of the next fuel increase. Social media will capitalise on all these.

Maybe we can forgive ourselves, because we are all eager to know what’s happening, and be the first to tell it. We also want to know what government is doing about it, and we want that information like yesterday. But unfortunately government can be slow in responding to and releasing news. By the time they put together their intelligence gathering and sanitise their news for public consumption, social media has already hyped the stories and every one is copying what is happening everywhere. Zambians, though Christians, are so depraved. They copy everything, good and bad.

That’s why this column wants to look at issues beyond the obvious. When we look at issues beyond the obvious we want to be objective but not opinionated. Here we want our people to analyse and put to test what those in authority are saying, because oftentimes, what they say is for their own self-preservation, while at the same time people should learn to sieve what social media is trying to shove down our throats, because social media is all about sensationalism. So how is social media affecting you?

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