The internet has expanded the information and communication space for individuals, businesses and even nations. Advances in mobile telephony and a variety of social media tools have further expanded information opportunities, particularly among people who have received formal education. Social media in particular, has expanded the frontiers for information dissemination. Infact, many newsfeeds now feature on Facebook and other social media portals. Many people need not wait for the major news bulletin or the next set of newspapers to follow happenings in the country.
A moderate mobile phone and network connectivity are the only requirements to stay connected even in much of rural Ghana. Many people, including the young and old, are very active on Facebook in Ghana, affording opportunities to people across the country to share information on politics, religion, business, entertainment and culture. This development has created another pool of ‘journalists’ or ‘reporters’ who regularly update their statuses with news items, personal opinions and pictures. Political activism on Facebook is very prominent among young users. Some in this category often sensationalize and sometimes concoct stories. Some messages are heavily laced with ethnic, religious and political venom with counter reactions that send shivers down the spine of many a reader.
How a tool that operates on the principles of friendship and socialization could easily evoke passion and resentment may well provide clues to the hidden tensions beneath a veiled peaceful nation. In a simple exercise to measure tolerance and polarization using social media, the writers discovered that so much animosity, bigotry and outright hate campaigns are common features among some Facebook users in Ghana. Young people have the effrontery to insult and denigrate people of high social standing just because they disagree on political or other grounds. It looks like it becomes easier to be naughty and violent on Facebook than elsewhere.
Knowing we do not do active politics on Facebook, we set out to conduct an experiment in testing people’s political (in)tolerance using a very simple strategy unknown to any of our friends. Each of us separately used the portrait of the presidential candidates of the two major political parties as our profile pictures at different periods for four days before changing to the other candidate. First comment: “Who hacked this account?”, “No one hacked his account, he made the right choice” – a friend’s reply to the first comment, “I see”, “how much have you finally accepted?”, “The costs must definitely outweigh the benefits”. Those were some of the comments we received apart from the numerous phone calls and WhatsApp messages we got from our “well wishers”. Apart from perceiving some people as “sacrosanct” enough to venture into partisan politics, the rants were apparent, especially among our Facebook friends who do not know each other.
It may be assumed that these rants are restricted to educated folks and Facebook users and for that matter outreach may not be on a scale that could trigger mass actions across the country. We submit that a single rant or lie told on Facebook has much the same potency as radio announcements. We should be worried that so much falsehood is posted on Facebook. We should be getting angry that people manipulate images and other graphics that have political and ethnic undertones. We should begin to lose sleep over the prospect that people may even create their own election results and transmit same via Facebook; which transmission may rapidly spread across every nook and cranny of this great republic. Above all, we should get agitated that even older and very educated Ghanaians have been less than decorous and spew so much venom, ill-will, hatred and garbage on Facebook.
It does not matter that we attend funerals, weddings, out-doorings and worship sessions together. It does not matter that we do not let go the numerous photo ops to hug and smile for the populace to see. It even doesn’t add anything that we usually prefix our statements with phrases such as ‘he is my brother’ and ‘she is my good friend.’ If all within these, we could still stoke fires through Facebook, we may well be described as a perfect example of blowing hot and cold. And considering the heat that is generated, it may not be long before we had it. May God forbid!
There is so much work for everybody in the coming days. We should understand that the election is only a means to an end. We should not underestimate the potency of Facebook to disturb our peace, and we should know that Facebook will only work well for us when we deploy it in such a way that it promotes peaceful coexistence. The thriving peace industry that comes alive every four years needs to devise innovative messages that respond to the rampaging recklessness on Facebook. The traditional media appears to be the only game in town. However, given the potency of Facebook in information dissemination, we can no longer continue to ignore the threats in front of us.
By: Alhassan Musah and Muazu Ibrahim
Alhassan Musah is a Chartered Accountant and lecturer at the UDS School of Business and Law.
Tel: 0208128077. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Muazu Ibrahim is the Quality and Impact Assessment Manager at ActionAid Ghana.
Tel: 0208004800. Email: email@example.com