"A check on Monday, 7th December, 2009, showed that key political figures were on Facebook and were having varying numbers of friends to their credit: President Umaru YarAdua had 2,352 friends; Olusegun Obasanjo (3,216); Abubakar Atiku (850); David Mark (594); President Barack Obama of the US 6,947,377 and his Russian counterpart, Vladmir Putin 5,816 friends on Facebook."
Politics of New Media: A Look at the internet and Mobile Telephone as Democratic Tools in Nigeria
When I was contacted by the dean of the Faculty of Information and Communication Technology, Dr. Femi Ademiluyi to come and present a paper as part of activities marking the ICT week of this institution, my initial reaction was to query what qualified me to be chosen for this task.
I told him that I am not an academic like the other speakers who are highly respected Professors. He responded in a quite disarming way that the fact that I am not an academic in the traditional sense was in fact one of the reasons for the choice. Again I asked him what topic I was to speak on and he replied that I was at liberty to choose any topic in the field of Mass Communication, touching on my experience in the newsroom and, especially, in government as a spokesman/ media relations manager in the last seven years. I there and then realised that it would be appropriate if I do not deviate from the subject matter of the celebration that necessitated the invitation. I decided I would share with you some of the observations I have made in the last couple of years on the transformations that have attended media forms and practice, particularly the on-going transition from the traditional media to a new form of communication that is fast upturning held media belief system. I decided I was going to look at the phenomenon of the New Media, specifically -the internet and the mobile telephone in Nigeria connecting them with the politics of democratic engagement we have been embracing since 1999. I then chose the topic: Politics of New Media: A Look at the Internet and Mobile Telephone as Democratic Tools in Nigeria.
I know you would want to know what I mean by the key concepts of politics, new media, internet and mobile telephony. I will start by defining these while my explanation will also take care of the concepts of democracy and democratic tools.
Philosophers, political scientists and even world statesmen have varied definitions for “politics” – a topic that has always attracted intellectual and philosophical attention across ages. Plato and his pupil Aristotle see politics in the traditional sense of the art and science of government while more radical thinkers believe that politics as an art extends beyond the traditional concept of governance of states going to practically every activity of man including sports and family life. These two views are shared by the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics (2003:422) which defines politics as ”the art or science of directing and administering states or other political units, and goes further to include what it called the extreme position that believes that the “personal is political”.
However, for the purpose of this paper, politics will be defined as the art or science of struggle for the control of states and “of administering states and other political units.”
Academic’s Dictionary of Mass Communication attempts a very simple definition of the New Media describing them as “the different kinds of communication that combines text, graphics and video with computer technology to create a distinctive product”, as opposed to what is known as the traditional media of newspapers, the radio and television. Communication theorist, Dennis McQuail (2005:136) defines New Media as “a disparate set of communication technologies that share certain features apart from being new, made possible by digitalization and being widely available for personal use as communication devices.” The editors of the Handbook of New Media(Lievruw and Livingstone), as quoted by McQuail, see the New Media as a composite of the possibilities and activities of Information Communication Technologies (ICT) with their associated social contexts (Ibid: 38). These definitions of the “New Media” will now lead us to the other two concepts of internet and mobile telephony.
Rodman (2006:297) traced the origin of the internet to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when communist Cuban President Fidel Castro invited the Soviet Union to set up military bases in Cuba, in an area just 90 miles South of Florida. President John F. Kennedy reacted on October 22, 1962, in a televised speech, declaring Cuba “an offensive Soviet base”, and threatened a nuclear war if the missiles were not removed immediately. The Soviets complied after a stand off and the war was averted but the US saw in that face- off its own military weakness in not detecting the plot ahead. Thus, the government started the funding of a computer network with “redundancy of connectivity”. This is, a network without a central control point such that if one or even several lines of communication were broken,” the network would still work. The project which came to be known as Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANet) was finally set up by the US Department of Defence in 1969 for military communication. The National Science Foundation (NSF) with quite a number of computer networks, took over and was soon joined by universities with intra campus computer networks. The NSF network became “the backbone system that interconnects networks” -thus, the name internet was born (Vivian, 2009:237). Today, according to the Encyclopedia of Everyday Law, there are over “200 million computers, computer networks, and databases interconnected across the world” in the immense labyrinth called the internet. Its user interface, known as the World Wide Web, “gives users access to a vast amount of information, including typewritten text, tabular and graphic material, sound recordings, video images, pictures, and computer programs, which are stored at locations called Web sites."
The internet is a unique communication system that can be described as an amalgam or a convergence of the radio, film, television and, even the newspaper. It makes instantaneous global contact possible. The internet has made it possible for the Nigerian living in the state of Nevada , US to read Nigerian newspapers online six hours ahead of his counterparts living in Nigeria . It has made it possible for Nigerians to listen to Nigerian radio stations anywhere in the world. You can, for instance, listen to Osun radio on the states website www.osunstate.gov.ng.
Other features of the internet as noted by McQuail, is that the system “retains an inbuilt resistance to attempts to control or manage it. It appeared not to be owned or managed by anyone in particular, to belong to no territory or jurisdiction. In practice, its content and the uses made of it are not easy to control or sanction even where jurisdiction could be established (Mcquail, 2005:153).
In Nigeria today, governments at the federal and state levels, including ministries and agencies all have websites hosted to showcase their structures and activities. While there are no statistics on the number of users of the internet in Nigeria , a September 2001 research in the United States estimated that “approximately 420 million people were accessing the Internet each day in at least 27 countries.”
Thus, what started as a purely military pro-active business in 1962 through 1969 has blossomed into a revolution that is upsetting century old beliefs and decades of held conclusions about the world of mass communication. The advents of the computer and the internet are perhaps singular events that have welded a fragmented world into one vast virtual community. The New Media have ensured that almost everything is possible to create and to know across cyber space and digital geographies. Sheldon Brown, director of the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts at the University of California, San Diego, quoted by Ramanujam,(2008:6) believes that humanity is right in the middle of a cultural turmoil triggered by the transition from a dying media culture to another with a new space created. I agree with him that today’s media users are an excited lot who “dive in and experiment with new ways of communicating, socializing and sharing information”
And so, it is not by accident that the age of new media coincides with the age of opening up of the political space, especially in Nigeria .
Democracy and New Media in Nigeria
The new media have come to take on the image of democracy. Some describe them as freedom Technology simply because they resist control, they represent media free-wheeling of ideas, they have no centralized control and yet they ironically bind, transnationally, media users to one family. We speak about democracy being the best form of government because, at least in theory, it places the reins of government in the hands of the people. Pericles, leader of the Athenian democracy, brilliantly put it that “our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands, not of a minority, but of the whole people…..” He goes further to note that “just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other.”(Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian war,11.37, quoted by Burrow:2009:29). Freedom to communicate ideas without any inhibition in a polity is a vital pillar of democracy. The traditional media always have some other interests to protect. For economic, social and even political reasons they will not open their being for use by just anyone wanting to pass a message on. You must have money to advertise on the radio, television and the newspapers. You must belong to the NUJ to practice journalism in Nigeria . But to engage in online communication activities you do not need to belong to any career cult and, with very little amount of money you get logged on, communicating with others anywhere in the world.
The genius of the internet is, perhaps, more greatly seen in the search engine interface, Google and the Social networking website, Facebook. The Bible says God created man in his own image. It has been observed that in the internet, particularly, in Google, one can see an attempt by man to simulate God- creating a system that is seemingly all knowing, cheap to relate with, always willing to answer all questions/prayers (although sometimes slowly), and wirelessly connected as we connect with our Maker without any visible link. This thinking, described as “divinity metaphor,” appears to me to be very apposite as it also connotes a saviour-like image. How?
The opening up of the democratic space in Nigeria has ensured that the communication space is widened too. There has been a flurry of communication activities on the internet in the last three years, especially after the 2007 elections. Media consumers appear to be getting increasingly disenchanted with the traditional media’s excessive self-censorship and are seen turning to internet based news sites for detailed and uncensored reports on our democracy and its operators. This has led to internet created virtual communities stepping up political discourses in Nigeria and on Nigeria . We now have such interactive online groups such as firstname.lastname@example.org and sites such as, www.nigeriabestforum.com; www.nigeriavillagesquare.com; and www.prnigeria.net. There is also at least one on Osun state- www.osunpolitics.com. Each of these sites has opened up the media space for its members and those on its mailing list to operate and freely comment on issues and persons without any fear of state or official sanctions.
There are also very radical news sites which even the traditional media have had to rely on in getting sensitive news stories. www.saharareporters.com and www.pointblanknews.com readily come to mind when considering this category. Other news sites that have been very active in the last three years include www.economicconfidential.com which dwells on investigative economic and other related stories on Nigeria . www.empowerednewswire.com covers Nigerian stories in the United States and its stories are subscribed to by Nigerian newspapers.
But these sites can also be veritable channels for posting messages that could be subversive, offensive or libelous if published in conventional newspapers. Their anonymous nature and the absence of control over the professional competence of their operators make them accessible to all manners of people who may decide to use, abuse or misuse them. Martin Asser, a BBC Search Engine specialist, got it aptly when he asserts that “freedom of access to the internet means much offensive material resides there…”An example is the November 2009 posting of the false news of the demise of Mrs. Maryam Babangida on the internet. One of the websites that first published the false news – www.nigeriabestforum.com – realised its mistake hours later and published another story refuting its earlier report. However, a feature of the internet is that such posted materials even when removed from the original, primary website remain in circulation and are thrown up by a simple search on the google. That false obituary is still floating in the internet.
Even when it is confirmed that a material is offensive, because of the anonymity of the internet, those who posted it may refuse to remove it from their site and this automatically gets circulated around the world. The November 2009 Google apology to Mrs. Michelle Obama over the posting of a racially offensive photo of hers is also a case in point. Google agreed it was offensive but refused to remove it because, according to it, it would run counter to its rule not to meddle with any search. The BBC reported it thus on its website (last updated at 16:43 GMT on Wednesday, 25 November 2009) with the headline “Michelle Obama racist image sparks Google apology:”
Google has apologised over a racially offensive picture of Michelle Obama that appeared when users searched for images of the US first lady. The image came top of the Google Images results for "Michelle Obama". Google placed a notice over the picture titled "Offensive Search Results", saying: "Sometimes our search results can be offensive. We agree." Later on Wednesday the image dropped from top image results, though the BBC understands Google did not remove it. Instead, the image appeared to have been removed from the site that originally published it, and was therefore no longer appearing prominently in Google searches. The White House has declined to comment. Users who clicked on the advertisement above the image were directed to a statement from Google, which explained that its results "can include disturbing content, even from innocuous queries". "We apologise if you’ve had an upsetting experience using Google," the company said. Google says a website’s ranking in its search results relies heavily on computer algorithms, using thousands of factors to calculate a page’s relevance to a given query. But the search engine says it does not remove images simply because it receives complaints. "Google views the integrity of our search results as an extremely important priority," it said. "Accordingly, we do not remove a page from our search results simply because its content is unpopular or because we receive complaints concerning it."
However, Google, the California-based web giant says it will take down certain images, if required by law to do so. A spokesman for Google, Scott Rubin, would not give details on how the image – which has sparked fury in the blogosphere – ended up as top result for the wife of President Barack Obama. The picture first surfaced earlier this month, (November 2009) when it was removed because the site hosting it violated Google guidelines by spreading so-called malware – malicious software designed to infiltrate other computers. But the image then reappeared on another site, apparently untainted by malware, meaning Google was bound by its own rules not to meddle with the search, according to technology analysts. David Vise, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author of The Google Story, told the BBC the search engine’s results get to the top based on popularity, not because of any ranking system by people. He added: "If Google got a call from the White
House telling them it’s against the law to have an offensive image of this kind which portrays the first lady in a racist manner as a monkey or an ape, then they would be obliged to take it down and I’m sure they would do so immediately." But he said it would be a "very slippery slope" if Google were to try to police the limits of free speech. "Once you begin to block images, who is to say. It’s like the Supreme Court of the United States once said, ‘what is pornography?’ Well we can’t define it, but we know it when we see it." Source: BBC news online site.
As at 17th December, 2008 Facebook Demographic Statistics showed that its user base was growing at more than 130 percent monthly. Chief Executive Officer of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, in a December 2,2009 open letter announced that more than 350million people were on Facebook. Earlier in a July 2007 interview with Time Magazine had declared that 150million people around the world were actively using Facebook and almost half of them were using Facebook every day in every continent of the world- including Antarctica . And he stressed –“If Facebook were a country, it would be the eighth most populated in the world, just ahead of Japan, Russia and Nigeria.”(www.time.com).
Statistics on Nigeria shows that by 30th December, 2008 the Facebook user figure was 199,335. With 17 percent monthly increase in the number of those who use Facebook, the national figure hovered around “almost half a million by June 2009.”(www.startupsnigeria.com). The natural question will be- what were these people using Facebook for? Politics, business or just social networking?
Facebook’s CEO’s answer to Time magazine’s question on the use the site is put to by those on it appears instructive:
TIME: Why do you describe Facebook as a “social utility” rather than a “social network?”
Zuckerberg: I think there’s confusion around what the point of social networks is. A lot of different companies characterized as social networks have different goals — some serve the function of business networking, some are media portals. What we’re trying to do is just make it really efficient for people to communicate, get information and share information. We always try to emphasize the utility component. (www.time.com)
Nigerian politicians and Civil Society Groups have keyed into the tremendous political gains inherent in joining Facebook. A check on Facebook shows that notable politicians with ambitions apparently joined for political leverage, assessing how popular they are with the people. They appear to be using Facebook users as a sample of the electorate. And if we remember our earlier conclusion on politics as an institution embracing every activity of man, then we can affirm that indeed, apart from active politicians, other users of the Facebook who claim to be using it for purely social networking are indeed, engaging in socio- political activities.
A check on Monday, 7th December, 2009, showed that key political figures were on Facebook and were having varying numbers of friends to their credit: President Umaru YarAdua had 2,352 friends; Olusegun Obasanjo (3,216); Abubakar Atiku (850); David Mark (594); President Barack Obama of the US 6,947,377 and his Russian counterpart, Vladmir Putin 5,816 friends on Facebook.
This is to tell us that whether “social utility” or “social networking” they both embed all that is political.
Having said this much about the impact the internet has had on our politics and our democracy, I want to briefly connect it with the mobile telephone which has proved to be another veritable political tool in the hands of all vital segments of the society including stakeholders. Besides, new technologies in mobile telephony have collapsed the line between the worlds of the internet and the mobile phone such that telephone sets have become “machines” for mobile browsing in addition to the traditional voice calls.
Mobile Telephone is telephone that is not fixed or wired. And because it is wireless, it has wide acceptability and adaptability across space and class. The Global System for Mobile Telecommunication (GSM) which was introduced into Nigeria in 2001 revolutionalised telecommunication service in Nigeria . It marked a departure to the elitist analogue mobile phone- the 090- and a fitting complement to the fixed land phones that had become unmanageably ineffective (despite being inexplicably expensive) for the subscribers. Thus, the deregulation of the political system soon got to the telecoms sector with the licensing of GSM operators. From urban Lagos to rural Iree in Osun State , access to mobile telephone is unrestricted for those who have the money to acquire and maintain mobile phone sets. The unrestricted sale of sim cards has seen millions of Nigerians having access to this means of communication. At the last count according to NCC statistics, in the second quarter (April-June) of 2009, 66.42 million Nigerians own mobile phones. Part of the breakdown of this figure is as follows:
Source: Cellular News (Posted to site on 20th September, 2009)
Other service providers account for the balance in the number of subscribers.
The limitless possibilities in New Media have ensured that hand phones become a combination of the traditional telephone and the computer thus interlocking the internet into telephony. With a Blackberry, a subscriber to any of the GSM operators can go to the internet, visit any website, search for any information, send any information to any e-mail address, take and attach photographs as files, send or print photographs, send texts and multi media messages and make the normal voice calls.
This has enhanced political activities just as it has also significantly thrown up challenges in the polity. We will remember that all military coups that had been staged in Nigeria were announced on national radio after cutting telephone service to the country. The deregulation of the telecom sector has effectively made it very difficult for telephone communication to be abruptly disrupted again for political purposes. The multiplicity of telecom operation licences has ensured that if an operator fails to work, others are on.
The Challenges of the internet and mobile phones to our Democracy
Every developmental effort has a reverse side. On the negative side of the New Media are the activities of mischief makers who exploit technology to undermine the security of the system. Indeed, as noted by Rodman, the freedom and lack of regulation that have been put up as strong points of the new media over the traditional media, have also proven them to be dangerous and very unreliable. For instance, most false death rumours concerning political figures in this country are initiated on the internet and then further redistributed using the Short Message Service (SMS) provided by the GSM to push them on. A newspaper editor recently told me that he and his colleagues had realised the need to be very wary of using stories sourced from certain sites that have acquired notoriety for posting false reports. A radio News Manager told his bosses, in November, 2009 that he authorised the use of Mrs. Babangida’s false death story after confirming it on a news site. Sadly, when other managers went back to the site following the goof, the false report had been yanked off the site. Unfortunately, it is the case today that despite the fact that there are uncountable number of websites across Nigeria , “no single authority exists to regulate it.”
Again, fraudsters have repeatedly been able to clone phone numbers of top government officials exploiting loopholes in the operations of service providers. An example was the discovery some months ago that a telephone line belonging to a state Governor (name withheld) was being criminally used to call some bank managers with instructions that they should pay money into certain accounts. Inquiries later showed that the fraudsters applied to the service provider claiming ownership of the phone line which they said had been stolen and then sought for a replacement of the “lost” sim card. With ease, they got the number re-allocated to them while the original owner was denied the use of his line. The service provider later apologized to the governor in a letter claiming it did not have information on the identity of the real owner because it was a pre-paid line. Several of such cases have been reported by the media in Nigeria. However, to stem this tide, the regulatory authority, Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) is said to have directed service providers to register all subscribers on their prepaid platforms. This is expected to solve problems of impersonation, misuse and dump of abused sim cards by criminals.
In the course of this paper, I have highlighted the historical and political roots of the New Media and the effects they have had on our polity. I believe sincerely that despite the perceived negative use they are being exposed to, the internet and the mobile phone have contributed immensely to the growth of our democracy. They can be fitting complements to the traditional media in setting agenda for the nation. For the New Media to be very effective they must draw from the strength of the old media for the goals of social integration and social change to be realizable. This fact is attested to by Mcquail when he declared that “it is not easy to become famous on the internet without the cooperation of the traditional media” (Ibid: 139). In the days, months and years to come, the new media will be needed to ask questions which traditional media are dumb about. One of such questions is about why almost 70 percent of newspapers, private radio and television stations are owned by politicians who cannot even openly come out to claim ownership of these channels of communication. The new media is needed to venture into areas hitherto considered as “no go” by the traditional media. We are already seeing this in some of the online news sites and some absolutely free interactive sites that tend to put everyone on trial because they are open to anyone who subscribes free-of-charge irrespective of political, religious or social leanings.
If individual freedom, which is the hallmark of democracy will be safeguarded in Nigeria , the media is a veritable tool. That is one of the distinguishing features of the media in a polity. The traditional media played this role very well under the military. It fought gallantly to restore democratic governance in our country. However, the enthronement of democracy has thrown up new challenges for the media to grapple with- ownership problems, economic and political challenges, among others. Where for any reason, the traditional media is lacking in courage, the new media is to play the redeeming role of path-clearer. As we nurture our democracy, the media –traditional and new- will have to fight, hand-in-hand, not just the political class, but other privileged elite including media owners without democratic credentials. The New Media appears better kitted to engage these forces. It must therefore be encouraged, supported and actively promoted.
Mr. Lasisi Olagunju who is Special Adviser on Media and Chief Press Secretary to Osun State Governor presented this paper at Iree’s ICT Week of State Polytechnic on Tuesday, 8th December, 2009)
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