The two sides of social networking media

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BY EZEKIEL MUTUA

There are two sides to the story of digital media. On the one hand is the inexorable march of progress, and on the other hand is the dark side of the Internet where criminals prey on the unsuspecting as pornographers trawl the net to glorify their dark deeds

Even as Kenyans joined the rest of the globe to celebrate World Press Freedom Day last week, debate in most conferences all over the world centred on how new technology has transformed the traditional media and the challenges posed by the social media networks.

This year’s ceremonies had the apt theme “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers”. Throughout the world, media players took stock of the opportunities and vista brought about by the new media as well as the threats and dangers they pose to human development.

In next-door Uganda, an exasperated President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni found it necessary to take punitive action on citizens’ access to such social network sites as Facebook and Twitter amid signs of incipient insurrection in the “Walk to Work” protests against rising food and fuel prices.

At the same time, everywhere around the world, people followed details of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden’s death on Twitter and Facebook, the first media, in that order, to break the news of the elimination, beating radio, television, newspapers and other traditional media.

The new media of Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, live online news feeds and embedded video on official web pages have dramatically changed the way people communicate, receive, analyse, comment on, assess and evaluate the news.

It is interesting that the social networks, whose most world-famous brands are currently Facebook and Twitter, actually began innocently and benignly enough as an innovative way of keeping in touch with family, friends and associates.

However, they evolved in a revolutionary way, soon rendering futile any attempt to regulate, curtail or inhibit press freedom.

Unlike most governments and regulatory authorities, however, the traditional multi-media print and electronic newsrooms are quickly adapting to the social networking phenomenon and embedding their online services into it, thus capturing new audiences by the tens of millions.

For instance, Time, the global newsmagazine, produced a special edition on Thursday last week on the Osama execution — only the fourth edition in its 88-year history to be a “Red X” cover, i.e., a facet reserved by Time for the worst violators of human rights.

The first Time Red X cover was in May, 1945, featuring Adolf Hitler, the second in April 2003 featuring Saddam Hussein, the third in June 2006 featuring Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an Osama deputy.

This Time special edition hit newsstands around the world on Friday and went straight into iPads worldwide, garnering an audience of tens of millions, where the pre-Internet print edition used to reach only a couple of million readers.

The same week of World Press Freedom Day 2011 the Ugandan government was blocking Facebook and Twitter, the South Korean government was raiding the local offices of Google, the Internet search engine, in a very interesting investigation over what is called “location tracking”.

South Korea’s police suspect Google is secretly and illegally collecting location data without hundreds of thousands of users’ knowledge or consent. The Seoul police believe the real culprit to be AdMob, Google’s mobile advertising unit, which the company acquired in 2010 for a whopping US$750 million (or the entire Kenyan Budget that year).

Google has been under not dissimilar investigations in the US, Britain, France, Singapore and Switzerland. AdMob uses so-called “Street View” cars to collect location data, including streaming video, thus posing some of the most complex invasion-of-privacy issues in the Internet era.

Through its Google Earth device, the search engine firm has already mapped more or less the planet’s entire surface, including state houses and of defence department headquarters and other sensitive protected areas around the globe. Google is reportedly co-operating with the Seoul probe and tightening its privacy policies accordingly.

There are, therefore, two sides to the complex coin of digital social networking media. On the one hand is the inexorable march of an idea whose time has come and is quite unstoppable, outpacing and outstripping all governmental controls, most regulations and most legislation regimes.

On the other hand is the dark side of the Internet. Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) can travel, evolve and develop faster than most governance and administrative structures and processes, but they reckon without the one constant that matters most — human nature. Criminals, including human traffickers, pimps, child molesters and pornographers have also gone digital.

For every genuine “Walk to Work” protester in Kampala — for every demonstrator in the Arab uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East — there are 10 pornographers preying on women and children and men and boys. The pornographers also have a stake in cyberspace.

Through the Ministry of Information and Communications, the Government has taken a firm stand against setting up a domain to provide access to pornographic sites, including extreme portals that glorify the rape of children and bestiality (sex with domestic animals).

Yet the initiative is bound to elicit controversy and sharp criticism from the libertarians, those who believe in licentious freedom of choice and run pornographic sites. But, even as we ponder the future of the digital media, it is important for us to keep our eyes on the ball.

Facebook, Twitter and others have made it possible to send and receive mass messages and engage vast numbers of people instantaneously on all subjects under the sun, for better and for worse.

It is a phenomenon that no force on the face of the earth has ever encountered before and that none can now prevent. The trick is to separate the “wheat” from the “chaff” and filter out the latter without infringing on anyone’s rights — a daunting, but essential, task indeed.

(The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya. email:emutua @information.go.ke)

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