Social media armed with free expression? Say what?

Friday June 7 2019

A smartphone user. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

A smartphone user. Half of the time people don't even know what they mean when they say social media and don't know the major platforms. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

ELSIE EYAKUZE
By ELSIE EYAKUZE
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On May 24, for their Memorial Day, the @USArmy Tweeted the following: “How has serving impacted you?” beneath a video of a young square-jawed man from Central Casting who gave his testimony about being a scout.

Take note: the timestamp on the Tweet reads 02:34 am. An innocent enough query, upon first glance. The nice thing about being half a world ahead of the US is catching some of these developments in real time, being able to ride the crest of the wave so to speak.

And what a wave it was. Thousands of Americans used the opportunity to talk about the hell they or their family members had gone through stemming from serving in the armed forces.

From a societal perspective, it was informative, because we so rarely cover how perpetrating war upon people actually costs the perpetrators.

From a media perspective, it was a notable phenomenon because the ongoing problems faced by US service people and veterans came to light and it was refreshing to see relatively non-partisan collaboration to address what appears to be a pretty serious problem. No pushing this one under the political carpet.

Like I said, the query seems fairly tame but many of the issues raised have been brewing for decades with little or no real traction. How could the Army’s social media team not know that they could generate such a response?

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Two possibilities: They had no clue it would blow up, in which case they need a whole new communications team let alone PR and social media dedicated staff. Or… better yet, they did know exactly what they were doing by “innocently” creating an opportunity for these issues to come to light.

I lean towards the second one because of the time stamp: Half past two in the morning is a perfect time to make some mischief.

As a result, anyone can now find out more about PTSD and how some Americans really feel about the potential for a war with Iraq with nuances one can’t get from talking heads.

This is a positive example of what social media was intended to do before corporate interests hijacked it and algorithms began tracking us all and skewing information. It created a direct interaction between a remote and “powerful” institution and everyday people.

Just so we are clear: please don’t try this in East Africa. Tanzania probably has the most civilian-friendly military going on in the region and even I wouldn’t go further than a polite “Na’am, Afande” somewhere in their general vicinity and I never ask about the national security budget at budget time.

Militaries aside, there’s a bigger point here. I am frankly tired of all the griping about new media and fake news and it all being the fault of this social media phenomenon.

Half the time people don’t even know what they mean when they say social media and have a hard time distinguishing between major platforms.

So it is good to highlight instances like this when democracy, freedom of speech and speaking truth to power have been mediated by, well, social media.

There are thousands of examples of this happening, but sometimes it is nice to focus on a good campaign that yielded results. Will the plight of veterans improve in the US? Will the country become less bellicose? Perhaps. Social media rocks.

Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report.E-mail: [email protected]

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