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Is social media a growing threat to democracy?

Since the advent of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the Internet’s   designation  as a fully-fledged news platform has become a universally accepted view among media pundits. a differenti- ating feature about social media rel- ative to traditional media platforms such as newspapers and broadcast is its ability to disseminate informa- tion in real-time to a wider audience that is not restricted to geographical borders.

The ability to disseminate news inexpensively beyond the confines of

national  borders, and consequently

thrust pertinent issues into the arena of public debate as soon as they arise, has given social media a huge edge over traditional media.

Furthermore, the interactive nature of these social media plat- forms and their accessibility over mobile phones have enthused bil- lions around the world. In Kenya alone, there were 5.5 million Facebook users as at June 2016, according to Internet World Stats. This essentially means that 12 per cent of all Kenyans are on Facebook and, potentially, other social media sites. The growing popularity of social media has fundamentally changed news consumption habits, and more people around the world are accessing their news via feeds on social media, including retweets by influencers on Twitter. meanwhile, fewer people are consuming news via newspapers, radio, TV or news websites. Because of the shift of audiences towards social media, advertisers are shifting a huge chunk of their budgets this medium, in order to capitalize on the value proposition these platforms present in terms of size and diversity of audiences.


business disrupted

advertisers’ decision to allocate more ad dollars  to  the  Internet  at the expense of newspapers and broadcast platforms has significant- ly affected the revenue models of traditional media. consequently, many traditional media bigwigs around the world are restructuring and adopting a digital strategy to ensure long-term survival.

The analysts were right—social media, and in a broader sense the Internet, has fundamentally changed the media business. “We’ve   left   behind   a world

where established news brands could rely on reaching large audiences and hence secure advertising revenues. Now there is huge uncertainty about business models, even as digital gives consumers more convenient access to news than ever before,” observed David Levy, Director for the reuters Institute for the Study for Journalism at the University of Oxford, and Damian radcliffe, Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon.

In a co-authored article published on The conversation in 2016, Levy and radcliff further observe that: “globally, for all age groups under 45, online news is now ranked as more important than television news. among 18-to-24-year-olds, social media (28 per cent) rates above TV (24 per cent).” These insights are drawn from the findings of a survey the two university researchers conducted that polled 50,000 news consumers in 26 nations.

Social media is impacting the media business and compelling more media companies to go back to the drawing board and rejig their busi- ness models.

Nation media Group last year announced a restructuring exercise that has since seen the company effect staff layoffs in its bid to mar- shal a leaner workforce that can drive its new digital strategy. Similar changes are happening all around the world, at least in countries where Internet penetration has reached a tipping point.

clearly, social media has disrupt- ed the traditional media business. Furthermore, it has not only affected the commercial dimension of the media business, but also the social impact of the media. however, before analyzing how

social media has affected the media’s ability to deliver on its responsibility to society, it is imperative to relearn the role of the media in society.

building  democracies

The media, though primarily owned by private sector in many progres- sives societies, does not exist solely for the sake of profit. Newspapers and broadcasters are not merely a conduit for advertisers to get their message across to captive audiences. media has an equally huge role

to play in improving the society, par- ticularly in building strong democ- racies by providing accurate and objective information and ensuring that leaders are held to account.

The media’s role in strengthen- ing democracies harkens back to the 1800s. During this period, French, English and american thinkers were in agreement that publicity and transparency offered the best defense against the reckless tyranny of the leaders of the time.

Naturally, the press emerged as the best platform to entrench

transparency and publicise key issues of public interest. Ever since this period, the press’s role in building democracies has come into sharper focus. Tellingly, the term Fourth Estate has now become syn- onymous with the media, pointing to the media’s role as a co-equal to government.

citizen participation is central to the political and democratic pro- cess. The media provides informa- tion upon which critical democratic decisions are made, hence enabling citizens to participate by holding those to power accountable to the promises they made.

From this perspective, the media is an essential player in strengthen- ing democracies, by virtue of its role in disseminating information and supporting communication between the governors and the governed.“In any democracy, information and communication are considered vital organs without which democracy would not survive,” notes George Nyabuga in a paper published by media Focus on africa Foundation.

The truism that media and jour- nalism are critical to the wellbeing of society is based on the fact that infor- mation has become one of the vitally important resources that people and society need to operate, he notes.

moreover, the media is increas- ingly viewed as a watchdog and not merely a passive observer or narrator of events. Investigative reporting has helped officials adjust to the reali- ty of an inquisitive press, and this has been seen by the high quality of exposes that Kenyan journalists such as mohamed ali and John allan Namu have churned out in the past decade. cognisant of the role of media in strengthening democracy, constitutions around the world have been rewritten to provide guarantees of press freedom and the right to information.

The media’s key role in strength- ening democracy by providing accu

rate and actionable information to citizens is sustained by one thing— trust. There is generally a lot of pub- lic trust in media institutions, more so on their objectiveness on issues and their ability to cover all relevant angles to an issue.

an opinion poll conducted by Infotrak in 2016 indicated that the media was the most trusted institu- tion in Kenya. according to the poll, 87 per cent of Kenyans had confi- dence in the media and were content with the informative, educative and watchdog role of the media.

Fake news

Unfortunately, social media, by turn- ing the news publishing process on its head, is slowly chipping away at the trust that the public  had  put in the media. Unlike a  typi- cal newsrooms where information is checked and rechecked by an army of editors for accuracy and objectiv- ity, information on social media is shared without any prior checks on its veracity.

This has led to the rise of the “fake news” plague currently facing social media. The downside of all this is that the public has placed the blame of fake news on the entire media industry and not made any distinctions between social media and traditional media.

Bloggers routinely use social media to spread misinformation. Though their pieces are essential- ly works of fiction masquerading as journalistic  exposés,  many have come to believe their work. Furthermore, many readers and viewers are also actively making important political decisions based on information from blogs. The out- comes of these decisions have expect- edly been disastrous as sensational- ism usually substitutes for thinking on many blogs and social media.

“One of the biggest media phe- nomena coming out  of  2016  is  the rapid rise of fake news, to a large extent propelled by the recent american elections,” notes Odanga madung,  a  data  science  lead    at Odipodev, in an opinion piece pub- lished in the dailies in January.

  1. madung explains that fake news essentially takes the form of entirely false information or half- truths posing as genuine accounts of events. This phenomena was prom- inent in the U.S. elections that saw Trump ascend to power. Fake news, particularly on social media, affect- ed how many voted. “If fake news can affect the way voters think, it is a threat to democracy,” added madung.

Still on the issue of fake news, Professor Philip howard from Oxford University noted that: “during the recent U.S. presiden- tial election, there was a worrying amount of false information on both Facebook and Twitter, and research indicates that many users can’t dis- tinguish between real and fabricated news.”

World leaders are voicing their fears that fake news is  affecting the democratic process by propelling populist and sensational leaders to the stage rather than leaders who can tackle issues. Speaking in Berlin in September of last year, German chancellor, angela merkel, warned against the power of fake news on social media to spur the rise of populists.

merkel, 62, cautioned that public opinion was being “manipu- lated” on the Internet. “Something has changed—as globalisation has marched on, (political) debate is taking place in a completely new media environment. Opinions aren’t formed the way they were 25 years ago,” she said, adding that:“today we have fake sites, bots, trolls—things that regenerate themselves, reinforc- ing opinions with certain algorithms and we have to learn to deal with them.”


Grounds for state surveillance Social media is undermining democ- racy not only by  the spreading  of


fake news, but also by providing suf- ficient reason for the government to infringe on citizens’ private space and personal liberties. The state is now using social media’s ill reputation for enabling hate speech and misinforma- tion as legitimate grounds for state-sur- veillance.

In January this year, the communications authority of Kenya (ca) announced that it had invested Sh600 million in social media mon- itoring tools ahead of the General Elections. This is separate to the Sh400 million set aside for device monitoring tools that will allow the government to monitor the mobile phones of Kenyans. These procurements are all part of a larger Sh2 billion purchase the gov- ernment made to monitor Kenyans’ conversations in order to preempt hate speech online and via mobile phone networks in the lead up to the polls.

Though the ca  has  clarified that the equipment  will  be  used to monitor those suspected of hate speech rather than indiscriminately targeting all users, IcT experts are concerned this will not be the case. “We are very concerned because this raises real issues of surveillance and violates personal freedoms and is against the constitution,” observed ms. Grace Githaiga, a cyber security expert who is a member of the Kenya IcT action Network.

The constitution of Kenya, under article 31 (d), enshrines the  right to privacy to Kenyans. State sur- veillance of private communications on social media and mobile phone networks is therefore is likely to con- travene this, though issues of nation- al security can easily be argued as being more important than certain personal liberties. Privacy and state surveillance are hot-button issues at the moment in the world, though this is a more widely debated issue in western democracies than anywhere else. Nevertheless, it is any issue affecting all democracies around the world.

Even if government circumvents the issue of privacy and finds another way of regulating social media, suc- cess is anything but guaranteed. The dynamics of social media change so quickly and keeping track of things is not that easy.

This means that in the future, media laws could become more fluid, introducing myriad uncertainties in terms of regulatory risks. The poten- tial opportunities and threats for traditional media are immense. In concluding, the political capital that traditional media once held due to its role in providing checks and balanc- es in democracies is slowly but surely going away. Social media is the force behind these changes. It is changing democracy as we know it, and at this stage adaption appears to be a better option that resistance.