Social media making street protests a thing of the past

Technology is by its very nature revolutionary. It is very disruptive and has a way of making things obsolete and replacing them with others, both in material terms as well as culture (way of doing things).

Technology is by its very nature revolutionary. It is very disruptive and has a way of making things obsolete and replacing them with others, both in material terms as well as culture (way of doing things).

We are then left with little choice but to adapt to the changes or else we remain in a bygone era.

One such disruptive technological influence in recent times is social media. You want to advance a cause, fight injustice, vent your anger or get anything done, take to social media.

It is increasingly taking the place of street demonstrations as a means of protest or exerting pressure to effect change and has become the most effective campaign tool for almost any cause.

This is already upsetting the concept and exercise of power, taking it away from some who have monopolised it in the past and spreading it in a more democratic manner among the wider population.

The traditional demonstration or street protest has often been initiated and directed by organised groups with some amount of power. Success enhances that power over those they lead and in society generally. That is why it is the favoured method of politicians and campaigners for all manner of causes.

Street protests have one drawback, however. They are easy to put down, although often at enormous cost.

Protests or campaigns on social media, on the other hand, are not necessarily driven by any organised group. Indeed, in many cases, they are initiated by an individual and then spread and assume the power of a movement. Because they do not have a recognised leadership and are not confined to any given space, they are difficult to contain and so their success rate is much higher.

There are other obvious attractions that make social media an effective campaign tool as opposed to methods of the past.

It is a forum for raising and debating serious issues in which everyone feels they have made an important contribution.

Then it is a vent for letting out pent up feelings, frustrations, personal grudges or those against society. You can rail at anybody and anything and feel satisfied that you have had your say and that nobody will judge you.

It is also safe. You do not have to be out on the street to make your point and risk being clobbered by baton-wielding anti-riot police.

You do not have to be massed with those sweating and swearing rowdy crowds, some of them reeking of all sorts of smells that will make your stomach churn and overpower the spirit of protest.

And if you love the feeling of being part of a faceless mob and thinking that ordinary rules of social conduct and morality don’t apply, you shouldn’t worry. You can still have your mob, hollering and hurling insects and shouting obscenities.

You still have the freedom to break social rules and taboos, say all the unsayable things, without fear of reprimand or guilt, and actually get a kick out of it. Only this time there is no stone throwing or breaking of tree branches, and the mob is only virtual. There is also the added advantage of anonymity and safety.

Again, you don’t have to shout yourself hoarse, bellowing out slogans, which are in any case writ large on placards you are carrying – that is before you start crying and coughing involuntarily when your way is blocked by tear gas lobbing police.

You can make your point more effectively in the safety of wherever you are and simply tap away your discontent or whatever else you feel strongly about.

So, social media plays multiple roles. It is shaping the narrative in important and effective ways, and wresting this from traditional media because of its immediacy and instant and wider interaction. It also keeps people sane and balanced, makes them feel important and relevant, and avoids costly physical confrontation.

Which is why I would like to make a modest proposal to individuals, organisations and governments for its adoption as an integral part of the management of public affairs.

First to governments: don’t close space for social media. Open it more. You can even provoke debate of contentious issues so as to gauge the public mood, or even as a way of getting the issue out of the way. This way you can even take charge of the narrative. And then you don’t have to spend much on anti-riot equipment.

To the likes of Kiiza Besigye and Raila Odinga and others of similar ilk, forget the street. Get all those crowds tapping away and they will raise such ‘noise’ that will force those you want to drive out of power to listen, if only to get some peace.

You will also ensure that there are no broken skulls or little children dying and grieving families angry at both you and the government.

The revolution is here and it will pass you by and make you irrelevant if you do not adapt.

The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.