Innocent or Virulent Netizens?

By Nwachukwu Egbunike

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 How do we guarantee that this freedom of expression, of a free and open internet, is not abused? What happens when netizens do a species jump from being the protectors of freedom to become guardians of a de novo Gaul?  

The conversation among scholars and enthusiasts has morphed from if social media has changed the landscape to how this change will be perpetuated. As such the crushing of gatekeepers, the inherent freedom and participatory nature of social media platforms is no longer novel. Nigeria currently occupies an enviable position on the blogosphere of the continent, with Nigerians ranking the top three tweeters in Africa.

Numerous discussions on this rising profile of the once hidden voices – the citizens of the internet – seems to be limited on this new found power. This also includes but is not limited to the merits of technology granting unfettered access to the average person on the street and the impressive impact that being wired up has created. The ability to make governments accountable to the governed and giving an instant right of reply to netizens is celebrated across board.

Of course, this is no mean feat. Governments especially in Nigeria, have a history of glorifying the absurd. A case in point was the sudden disappearance and equally mysterious re-appearance of a Nigerian twitter user (Ciaxon) who shared sensitive security pictures via his twitter handle recently. The prudence or imprudence of tweeting and sharing pictures during such a delicate operation, is however a story for another day.

However, who keeps watch over these online watch keepers? How do we guarantee that this freedom of expression, of a free and open internet, is not abused? What happens when netizens do a species jump from being the protectors of freedom to become guardians of a de novo Gaul?

Still on the same Ciaxon case, it was simply impressive the amount of misinformation and outright lies that were competing for attention during that period. And to think that the same protest in Ibadan had as many variants and conflicting versions from some principal participants – thisthis and this.

A few weeks ago, Nigerian twitterati focused their entire attention and energy on the deputy minister of defence. And guess what was the ministers ‘unpardonable crime’, he tweeted drinking beer on Easter Sunday! He later deleted it and stated that his account was hacked. But the self-anointed and oversight-function tweet overlords were not pacified; they ranted non-stop about the beer drinking/tweeting.

It might be trite to recall that freedom is not absolute. The bastion of Western democracy is still calling for the head of Edward Snowden. As much as we celebrate the powers of social media and will do everything to ensure it remains free from government emasculation, nonetheless is it so difficult for netizens to exercise a corresponding responsibility? It takes little effort to be an amplifier of news – false or true – all one has to do is retweet and think later. What is more necessary and more tasking is to validate news on social media. But news validators need a tinge of healthy scepticism, independence and rationality. The follow-follow mania in Nigeria twitter sphere can be quite depressing.

Are netizens innocent or virulent per se? I’ll say no. However netizens bear the personal responsibility to either keep their innocence or inflict virulence on the social media platforms. The choice is ours.

 

This post was first published on AfricanHadithi (April 22, 2014)

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