I mean, it is one thing to vaguely know that the Facebook social media empire is wide-reaching and powerful. But when the global outage that happened a few days ago became breaking news across media outlets, that's when it hit me just what a monopoly can truly do.
The outage wasn't even that long in a country where power blackouts can last for long hours. However, according to a CNET editor who spoke to Al Jazeera, the Facebook platform alone is apparently used by over half of the world's population at least once a month. That is astounding.
There are a lot of questions as to why the outage, which affected Instagram and WhatsApp alongside what Millenials call 'OldBook', happened soon after a whistleblower who used to work in the social media empire admitted that the company was aware of the deleterious effects of social media particularly on young teenage women and their mental health. Nonetheless, they prioritised profits over addressing and solving the problem.
Likewise social media companies have been accused of being a critical tool in the spread of misinformation and in influencing politics, especially elections.
In the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018, which exposed activities going back to 2014, Facebook was found to be in cahoots with this profit-driven entity to enact political influence using data across several 'client' countries affecting millions of users. Their tools? Social psychology.
Besides, it is openly clear that user data is constantly collected by various parties from social media for all sorts of uses. Advertising is the legal one, we don't always know about the others.
Even knowing all this, I was curious about whether the effects and use of social media are universal to all users experience.
In Tanzania, there was certainly a 'push' effort to corral the population into social media platforms use, consistent with a Facebook global strategy. Specifically, telecoms companies offer social media packages that restrict the users to social media alone, leaving out the rest of the world wide web.
It's like being allowed to only read the cartoons section of a newspaper or thinking that libraries only contain entertainment and fashion magazines and nothing else. This came hand-in-hand with the steady fall in prices of mobile devices, and the introduction of smartphones or at least touchphones at an entry-level.
On several occasions what has struck me is how we relate to news in our use of social media. Misinformation happens — the Covid denial and anti-science sentiments we are now witnessing which have given rise to a credible antivaxx situation.
But I have found that we have retained a communal approach to information: we still triangulate. Like at a news stand, we will often share news across platforms, discuss who is releasing it and when and why, the angles that various outlets are presenting and finally agree to disagree on what it all means — unless of course it is a snippet of footage of an actual event.
So far nobody has brought up deepfakes as a potential problem, I am sure it will come with time and technology.
This implies that we are aware that fighting for freedom of information is easier when “crowd sourced” and citizen journalism is a part of our news consumption habits.
Funnily enough, I learned all about the Facebook outage through, of all things, memes on their fierce competitor Twitter where people made fun of the government on two angles — one a cheeky demand to know if they had hit the internet 'kill switch' and others mocking the authorities for being terrible IT technicians who can't even keep the country online.
So here we are with a fascinating mix of oral historical approaches to news, a natural knack for trying to verify stories, some internet savvy, as well as huge gaps in our tech literacy and an intractable vulnerability to propaganda campaigns. Sometimes it seems that 'the truth' really has no business being objective in this society, which is either wise or destructively cynical, who can tell?
Nonetheless, I remain as ever optimistic. Sure, we are in thrall to these platforms as much of the rest of the world is and we have to keep in mind how alarming that is, especially considering their dark side. But we are also bricoleurs by nature and find a way to use the tools of the powerful to confront power. If you can't fight it... subvert it?
One example of many is the watershed trial of Chadema Chairman Freeman Mbowe, it has been covered in a depth of detail for the public that is unprecedented, and has truly given the power of transparent information its due. The individuals behind this effort work with a dedication and internet savvy that I don't think even ye olde Facebooks of this world can challenge.
In the end, social media remain tools for human character, which sometimes shines a candle in the dark.
Of course, there are those that will dismiss this as a partisan effort or elitist 'Twitterati” concern but...isn't that what a Cambridge Analytica client would want you to think? Hmmm.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]