Time to curb Internet, social media abuse

Kudakwashe Mugari Deputy News Editor
The recent agitation for violence and anti-Government uprising by the opposition, which was largely mediated through the Internet and social media, has once again thrown light on the need to re-look the country’s security through the lenses of cyber-security.

This is in itself not a new debate locally and across the globe, as academics, experts and other stakeholders have increasingly discussed the pros and cons of internet and social media control.

The current debate suggests that cyber-warfare is well afoot in the country.

Social media and social networking platforms are already playing pivotal roles in politics, mass mobilisation, information sharing and dissemination. They are most likely going to play an increasingly crucial role in the politics of this country.

Social media is very effective and it is proving to be particularly beneficial to opposition activists as has been shown in them recently organising their destabilisation marches and protests.

Social media is about instant connection and instant information.

There is need for a proactive approach in addressing this situation within a double matrix namely, deploying the social media as a practice and policy and also using tools and technologies that can curb the abuse of the internet and social media.

On the first level, Government has to take an active role in formulating this social media strategy. There is no value in the Government playing catch-up to information from social media. The Government should be dictating dialogue and information through efficient and timely dissemination.

There is an urgent need to move with and adapt to changing times and conditions. The numbers of those engaging in Zimbabwean politics on social media and social network forums is greater than before due the enhanced access to technology.

Social media is a good platform, but information needs to be channelled and disseminated appropriately. It is an important platform for reaching out to voters and it is unfortunate that most senior ruling party officials have not embraced social media fully.

There is an urgent need for a social media strategy with party websites, official Facebook accounts, Twitter, YouTube channels and so on to increase coverage and outreach. The ruling ZANU-PF party has some of the best policy initiatives of all parties in Africa and they should utilise social media to engage and lay out party vision. These social network sites are vibrant virtual forums for discussions with potential voters and ordinary Zimbabweans.

The opposition activists are creating the majority of social media content and this is what is playing an increasingly significant role in the public sphere. This is what is drowning the real information and facts about Zimbabwe that the ruling party should be projecting out there.

Social media has the potential to be an asset if managed effectively or it can be a missile if mismanaged or not managed at all. Social media platforms should be used responsibly and citizens must be reminded that there are consequences to misuse of social media to incite violence and acts of terror.

Terrorist groups and individuals have increasingly used social media to further their goals and spread their message.

Attempts have been made by various governments and agencies to thwart the use of social media by terrorist organisations.

Terror groups take to social media because it’s cheap and accessible to a lot of people. Social media allows them to engage with their networks.

In the past, it wasn’t so easy for these groups to engage with the people they wanted to whereas social media allows terrorists to release their messages right to their intended audience and interact with them in real time.

Social media platforms are terrific for democracy in many ways, but pretty bad in others. Social media platforms are transforming the public sphere and political arena because they are hardly regulated.

These social media platforms present new opportunities to connect people around the world, but if used recklessly can also create attack surfaces for bad actors that wish to spread misinformation, encourage terrorism, engage in online harassment, steal personal data, restrict free speech and suppress dissent, experts have warned.

Therefore, the days of unregulated social media must come to an end. During the violent demonstrations in January, there was an attempt to black out the internet, which showed possibilities — and challenges not least — of controlling the flow of social media.

In Zimbabwe social media technology operate with little scrutiny.

Following the Arab Spring in 2011, social media was hailed as a boon for democracy, as it drove the uprisings that toppled dictatorships, ushering in democracy.

Interestingly, experts now feel that the same social media is threatening democracy. The negative impact of social media platforms on democracy has become a serious issue that need to be examined in an effort to get rid of breach of user privacy, influence campaigns and even fake news.

Revered American social media analyst Talia Stroud is quoted as saying social media platforms have evolved from people sharing their selfies and food to serious political engagements.

She said: “Right now, social media platforms have immense data sets that could be used in the service of democracy.

“Social media might play a more positive role. Overall, social media platforms offer new ways for people to interact with the news, government and each other. Not only can people share information and political opinions with their online networks, but political leaders have a more direct way to reach the public, bypassing traditional media. Right now, I would say that social media can influence democratically important outcomes like polarisation and participation.”

It’s very important for governments to regulate social media before it’s too late.

Technology should also be deployed, on the next level, to fight the negative impact of social media, especially the spread of fake news and disinformation, which we have seen in Zimbabwe.

A good example is China, where the internet is managed to minimise harm and social media is regulated. Reports are that China has disrupted social media in a censorship drive ahead of the Communist Party meeting next month. Other social media platforms, which people in the West use every day, are also banned in mainland China.

Instead they’re replaced by other ones which the Government can monitor.

It has been argued that social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, if used correctly, have shortened the length in information peddling. On the other hand, terrorist groups and individuals have increasingly used social media to further their goals and spread their message.

How social media has been deployed in Zimbabwe over the past year covering the August 2018 post election violence; January disturbances and the latest illegal demos shows the need for concrete action and Government must be encouraged to find ways, tools and solutions to curb abuse that causes instability and destruction.

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