Raising the Bar in Digital Engagement

 By Noel Ihebuzor

Indeed, social media are opening up the Nigeria social space in new ways. It is now the new equaliser that is breaking the information monopoly that was enjoyed by the state and a few media houses. In the process, it is unleashing hidden journalistic talents as we witness a mushrooming of bloggers, social commentators and critics.

There is evidence of a growing use of the social media by Nigerians. Facebook and Twitter have become invaluable tools for keeping in touch with friends and family. Indeed, social media are opening up the Nigeria social space in new ways. It is now the new equaliser that is breaking the information monopoly that was enjoyed by the state and a few media houses. In the process, it is unleashing hidden journalistic talents as we witness a mushrooming of bloggers, social commentators and critics. The latter are a part of a new generation of social activists who have now appropriated this new technology and now use it to network, share ideas, criticise and vent their frustrations.

Relatedly, citizen power is now growing. Those who were formerly voiceless now have a voice. These voices are now possible once you can sign up to an account on a social media, say Twitter or Facebook! An exciting brave world of information democracy is thus upon us as social media become a veritable tool with vast potential for use for awareness creation, sensitisation and social mobilisation.

Information democracy and a widening of the political space through social media are real though participation still reflects some harsh class realities. Since effective participation in and the enjoyment of this new information freedom are internet determined, the enlarging information democracy is still considerably social class bound and favours people in certain income brackets residing in certain locations! Internet access in Nigeria is still not fully “democratic nor equitable” as there are clear geographic inequities in its distribution!

Social media for now are increasing only the voice of an educated urban based population in their clamour for greater political say and space. The voice of the rural poor still remains dim and under-represented in this situation! A desirable development would be for this privileged elite to find ways to engage more with the less-privileged and increase the latter’s share of “the dividends” of this new information democracy and freedom!

Calling people “goons”, “clueless”, “shoeless”, “thieves”, “rogues,” “nitwits” is not journalism. Bloggers should realise that whereas blogs and comments can galvanise social change, a culture of hurtful language does not and will not…

Like most things, this new freedom can also be abused and indeed is beginning to be as the fresh wine of freedom is beginning to intoxicate! Restraint and respect are vanishing. In this brave new world of information democracy, liberty is now confused with licence and capacity to insult for intelligence. We also confuse the capacity and propensity to defame and slander for courage! The emerging blog culture/norm is one of adversarial engagement, ridicule, character smear and abusive language. The writing style also betrays a penchant for outright provocation and sensationalism, something which appears to enjoy peer appreciation and acclaim.

Do disillusionment with the political class, the frustration with the failures and dysfunctions in the nation, and the outrage at the blatant misappropriation of the national wealth excuse such social blogger styles and conduct? (Here we present the social blogger as the crusader for social change and committed nationalist!) However, commitment to nationalism does not absolve the social blogger from the need to show restraint in statements and comments. Calling people “goons”, “clueless”, “shoeless”, “thieves”, “rogues,” “nitwits” is not journalism. Bloggers should realise that whereas blogs and comments can galvanise social change, a culture of hurtful language does not and will not. The habits of accuracy, truth, fairness, impartiality, balance and decency produce more salutary results. Abandon these and you may have dramatic effects in the short term but alienation and erosion of credibility in the medium and long terms. Statements must be checked and re-checked for their truth values and evidence base before social bloggers blast their favourite targets. Responsibility and self-censorship are therefore advised. Impartiality and decency also demand that social bloggers screen their outputs for all traces of bias and prejudice, especially ethnic or sexist. The second part of this write-up will focus on the need to avoid sexist remarks in blogs.

Sexism is one area where bloggers must exercise great sensitivity and self-censorship given the critical importance of equality of treatment and non-discrimination, irrespective of religion, race or sex as norms for social engagement! Sexism, which is discrimination on the grounds of sex or gender, manifests in various forms – but its intention is always to demean, belittle or devalue someone by simply appealing to his/her sex/gender. Women are the main victims of sexism, and the intention of such sexism usually is to put women down, ridicule them, question their competence, subvert their confidence, lower their self-esteem, and ultimately control them. At home, sexism could manifest as physical violence and there is a whole literature on gender based violence as an instrument of control. In the workplace, it often manifests as offensive non-verbal communication, question/contestation by their male colleagues (superiors and subordinates alike) on the basis of their career mobility/promotion and a reduction of a woman to the physical, a reduction that seeks to undermine and negate her cognitive, spiritual and socio-affective capabilities! Here is a comment by a blogger on Twitter!

“If only a good face and an alluring body made a difference in public service. Sigh” (said in reference to a female public servant).

This remark was made during an exchange between this female public servant and a male social blogger! The exchange was prompted by a celebratory tweet this public servant had posted on Twitter announcing that a court had cleared her of certain allegations.

My interest here is not in the merits or demerits of the case in question. Rather it is on the need for bloggers to conduct themselves properly. To reduce the critical success factors for effectiveness as a public servant to physical appearance is clearly insulting to the lady in question and to all women. It also demeans the source of the comment and lowers his status!

We all, male and female alike, have a duty to speak out against such remarks that seek to demean and devalue women. Sexism is not proper conduct. It is symptomatic of an attitude that denies dignity, decency, respect and equity to women. It betrays a deep and fundamental lack of respect – for our sisters, wives, daughters and, yes, our mothers. Sexism “involves a reinforcement of behaviour and attitude on the basis of traditionally stereotypical roles people have in the society we live in”. Such attitudes and stereotypes have no place in current day Nigeria. As we struggle to sanitise Nigeria, we also have a duty to identify, condemn and eliminate those practices that treat a vital segment of our population with disrespect and derision. Where such practices manifest on blogs and social media, we all have a responsibility to speak out to denounce them! It is only when we collectively speak out against them that we can make sexism a thing of the past!

Social media can be harnessed as a force for good. They offer us limitless opportunities for socially beneficial uses. They also can be abused. Everything in the end depends on the attitudes and intentions of the human being as agent and user. The dominant current patterns of exploitation are veering towards the negative and destructive. This is unhelpful. We can and should correct this now.

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