Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

If it was entirely up to the government, I think some Zambian online publications would have long been shut down. With access to some sites already blocked, this week’s announcement by the minister of communication that the government is working on a law with the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority to make online media accountable was a mere reiteration of an already known position. Justifying the need to regulate online media, the minister said some publications are tarnishing the country’s image with their negative content and tendency to publish just anything and therefore need to be controlled.
In this blog, I share some of my observations on Zambian online media and in the next one I comment on the government’s position, among other issues.
With the ability to produce and disseminate news comes power: power to frame ‘reality’ by making preferred issues or interpretations salient and others insignificant or invisible; power to influence public discourse and opinion; and power to define ‘truth’, among others.
Previously, this ability and the power inherent in it was the preserve of a few but not anymore. Online platforms have significantly changed the media landscape in Zambia by removing the control on content production that was previously the norm and consequently enabling an ever increasing number of players in the field. These platforms have also presented unprecedented opportunities for citizens to speak on their governance and other issues of interest to them. Both changes are good for democracy because they enable enhanced freedom of expression, citizen participation and a bigger and more diverse public sphere, among other benefits.
These platforms merely provide a vehicle and their availability does not naturally translate into a more diverse public sphere or better informed public, for example. This then leads to the question: what are Zambians using online platforms for and what benefits are we enjoying? How does our reality compare to, for example, the democratising potential of these new media technologies?
Although I cannot answer these questions, here are some of my observations:
Copy and paste, Plagiarism: One benefit of new media is that voices and ideas that are excluded in traditional media can easily find expression online and I think social media has served Zambians very well on this score. Here we are able to access different voices, including those that challenge the dominant political, social and moral discourse promoted in traditional media. My concern, however, is how little original content there seems to be online compared to that which is merely lifted from one place, including radio and newspapers, and published by some online media. This probably works well for people in the diaspora who cannot access newspapers for example, but I think by merely replicating online the same voices and agendas that are privileged offline, an opportunity to further diversify the public sphere is lost. It means while the players may grow in number, the content does not increase so much in variety but only in circulation.
Different but related to this is plagiarism. I see too many cases of people who are comfortable stealing other people’s work and presenting it as their own. This is just one of several unethical practices common online.
Distortion, hearsay, hyperbole: As an ardent fan of new media, I find it unfortunate that some online media have normalised publishing distortions, hearsay and plain falsehoods as news. There is a clear lack of professionalism when it comes to basic news standards like verifying your information, insisting on accuracy, attempting fairness etc before publishing. “A source confirmed” is often the basis of serious allegations that would normally require provable evidence. Rumours, opinions and fabrications, no matter how defamatory, alarmist, exaggerated or indeed false, somehow find themselves published and I wonder if such online media believe they are exempt from any professionalism and ethical practice.
What cannot be ignored is the popularity of such stories among readers. Then there is also the tendency to pack their news with value judgements e.g. “the womanising and drunkard minister of this and that portfolio” and I wonder how that is a reporter’s place. How about just presenting provable facts and then allowing me, the reader, to decide what I think of that person and what I will call them? Sometimes I wonder how much time and opportunities for productivity get lost when so many people spend so much time spreading and reacting to hearsay. I wonder too what it means when so many people can hardly debate issues but can talk about personalities for days, unleashing some shocking attacks unrelated to the issue at hand. The intolerance in some comment threads is difficult to ignore; if the story they are reacting to involves a woman, especially a prominent one, then also expect some appallingly sexist comments.
Of the many opinions presented as fact, one example that quickly comes to mind is the interpretation of events as Satanism. I have seen, for example, how an online paper will confidently report a fatal road traffic accident as an act of Satanism and how people have been sacrificed etc. By presenting such personal beliefs as fact, I think responsibility gets shifted to what is beyond us – the paranormal – so where in these deliberations do we bring up issues we have control over such as road safety, road worthiness of vehicles on the roads, competence of drivers, road systems and so on? And talking of accidents, these also often show the lack of respect for basic ethics among some online media. An accident happens and pictures of victims in all states of mutilation get instantly posted online with no regard even for the most basic rule that no such identities can be revealed before families are notified.
Engrish: What online media and readers’ comments have magnified is the poor state of literacy among a lot of people. Sometimes I go over a sentence so many times but still fail to get even the remotest idea what the article is trying to communicate. I am not talking about such (unfortunately common) mistakes as cease being written as seize or their as there but entirely unintelligible sentences. I do not believe that proficiency in English is a requirement for participating in public affairs through online debate or any other chosen activity. Freedom of expression is not just for those who can write English correctly so I am not saying ‘Engrish’ writers should stop expressing themselves on matters of interest to them but it sure says a lot about how little the education system has done for some people. Until this year, English has been the sole official language of instruction from pre-school right through to college/university so it is definitely worrying to see so much unintelligible writing even by people who spent a minimum of 12 years in school. Also, I find it easier to forgive Engrish in comment threads and other user content than in the articles themselves because if you decide to publish in a particular language then you must make an extra effort to get it right.
Uncritical consumption: It is quite evident that a lot of people are uncritical in their news consumption and even those stories that should easily raise questions because of their evident lack of plausibility get taken as gospel truth. What I cannot claim to know is whether this unquestioning acceptance of just anything is due to ignorance or perhaps a conscious need to believe whatever tale has been fabricated because that is what they would like to be true. What I also find interesting is how even when some of these stories are later exposed as fabrications, this type of reader remains unquestioning in their belief and keeps taking everything as gospel truth. This state, I believe, is what enables some of the online media to carry on as they do. They have seen that they can be grossly unprofessional and even ridiculous and still remain extremely popular. There are of course other factors for this popularity (like exclusive exposés) which are a whole story for another day.
Sometimes the most factually incorrect information gets endless conversations going or gets zealously spread and repeated with none of the participants realising that the story is incorrect. This is actually being used by some people to intentionally fabricate stories for propaganda and mudslinging purposes. They are also rewriting history and telling it as they wish it had happened. Players are being erased from significant moments in history and others being fitted in/being magnified; not entirely honourable legacies are getting sanitized and heroes created belatedly.
So when I ask myself, has new media delivered enhanced citizen-consciousness, for example? The answer is yes and no. It is of course not realistic to expect what does not exist offline to magically be born online. People who make no effort to empower themselves with knowledge that enables them some capacity for critical thinking should not be expected to suddenly exhibit that capacity just because they are now online. There are lots of well researched and informative articles that get published and their popularity is nowhere near the sensational and sometimes plain fabricated ones. You will just see a few reactions and not all of them are about the issues raised. Somebody will go to great lengths to, for example, analyse the removal of fuel and mealie meal subsidies, a subject that affects all, and you will not see it generating as many reactions as something on Satanism for example would. If someone can however ‘explain’ subsidies in terms of Satanism, I bet it would become an instant hot cake.
So how do we address this situation? Do we let the defamation, sexism, distortion, pettiness and outright falsehoods just continue? Surely the government should go ahead and regulate these sites and even block some of them, no? No. In my next blog I share why I do not support the government’s position and why I think some practices are not exclusive to online media.


et cetera