By Chanda Mfula, University of Sussex, United Kingdom
In this article, I leave aside – perhaps for another day – my considered argument that by worrying too much about how citizens are using social media, the Zambian government seems to have gotten its regulatory vectors wrong, and that it should rather be more worried about how social media companies, particularly Facebook, are, as Roger McNamee observed at the beginning of 2018, fostering psychological addiction and how they can actually work to undermine democracy.
Instead, I argue that while social media has become a habitat for both petty and serious offences as well as outright crimes, state-controlled regulation may harm its virtues in the process of taking out its vices, chiefly because of the way politicians in power tend to blur the lines between self-interest and public interest. I also suggest that perhaps the government must invest more in educating rather than regulating social media users.
Minister of Transport and Communication Brian Mushimba was quoted in February as saying the government wanted to regulate social media to stop ‘the ongoing abuse of the internet which was manifested in cyber bullying, posting of fake news, fraud and the creation of fake accounts.’ On the face of it this looks like a reasonable decision, particularly when one considers the flurry of undesirable activities online in which many innocent people are targeted for abuse especially by those who choose to hide in cyberspace under the comfort of anonymity. Nonetheless, history is replete with reminders that state-controlled regulation is rarely used for its publicly stated aims. Instead, it becomes a mechanism for protecting the interests of those who control the state by abridging the rights of citizens which such regulation is supposed to aerate.
Even if the regulation of social media does eventually manage to weed out abuse, the challenge is that such regulation is usually ambiguous enough to also be used to turn citizens’ rights into the ‘noblesse oblige’ of the state. Governments generally have shown that they cannot be trusted with the ability (or even sincerity) to draw a line between liberties and their abuse. Those in control of government have their own political self-interest to protect, and they often see this self-interest as under constant threat, not so much from those abusing social media as from those with legitimate interest in political power, particularly opposition political parties, as well as other groups with a stake in the affairs of the country, including the media, civil society and the general citizenry. Social media has, in more ways than one, given such groups an untrammelled platform on which they are rediscovering their voices which had petered out on account of government’s preponderant and at many times repressive control of the mainstream media space. Thus, social media is going some way towards reworking the balance of power in the definition of reality, which until now has favoured the party in government. To many people, government is, therefore, anxious to restore their monopoly over the national political narrative by extending their stranglehold on newspapers, radio and television to social media.
We can thus know a thing or two about what to expect of government regulation of social media by looking at the way they have regulated mainstream media. To begin with, the tight regulation of what is otherwise supposed to be public media has resulted in the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), Times of Zambia and Zambia Daily Mail projecting the political interests of those who hold power over and above public interest. It is this supplanting of public interest with political self-interest, enabled by a lack of clean separation between government and regulatory agencies, which makes it hard for many citizens to be confident about any chance of fair regulation of social media use.
A simple content analysis of public media coverage of the 2016 elections would reveal the blatant blackout of opposition voices at a time when all political players deserved to be heard equitably as one way in which citizens can be helped to make informed choices when they vote. There have even been times when the abuse of public media has shamefully exceeded all proportions, as was the case in 2011 when ZNBC incessantly ran documentaries under the banner ‘Stand Up for Zambia’, which contained outrageous personal attacks aimed at denigrating then opposition leader Michael Sata in a futile bid to contain his surging popularity at the time.
Furthermore, we can also look at the way independently owned media have been regulated in Zambia. Attempts by independent media to be critical of the state have often been met with ruthless clampdowns by state agencies ostensibly operating as regulators. A more recent example was the suspension of broadcasting licences of Muvi TV and two radio stations, namely Komboni and Itezhi-tezhi, in August 2016 under section 29 (1) (J) of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Act, which empowers the state-controlled IBA to suspend a licence ‘in the interest of public safety, security, peace, welfare or good order’. The ambiguity in the interpretation of a section of an act worded this way creates a risk and proclivity for it to be used for purposes other than public interest. As a result, and perhaps rightly so, there were many people that interpreted the action against the three media outlets as borne out of the fact that these outlets often broadcast content which appeared critical of the ruling party during the rat race that was the 2016 elections.
These sad chapters in the recent history of media regulation in Zambia are, but only a few examples out of several, including worse, acts of repression to which the media in Zambia is subjected in the name of the law. Public media are made to parrot the agenda of the government of the day while independent media are punished for any attempt to be robustly critical of government.
There is little reason to argue against suspicions that the government wants to regulate social media for the same reasons for which they regulate mainstream media. After all, social media can and does serve the same political and democratic purposes as traditional media. In fact, the more popular view in media studies appears to be that people’s voices are amplified on social media, where citizens are no longer just audiences or users but are also producers of content. The implication, therefore, is that whereas with mainstream media government has mainly targeted its regulation at media organisations as producers of content, they will target individual citizens when it comes to regulating social media.
The accounts above make regulation look like such a bad thing, simply because it has been umpired by an interested player rather than by a neutral referee. Regulation is beneficial to citizens and the country if it is done purely in public interest. Majority of the citizens want social media to be safe space for their democratic citizenry and other genuine uses. They do not want cyberbullying, fake news and other vices. This is not just a Zambian, but a global concern. Questions about regulating social media have been raised elsewhere including in the United Kingdom.
Ordinarily, the IBA, whose name is really a misnomer, and the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA) (under whose ambit social media has been assigned), as well as other regulators, are supposed to be independent of government if any form of regulation is to be carried out purely in public interest. Such independence, at least in theory, is best guaranteed by insulating the board and management of regulatory authorities against political interference. In countries where this has worked, such insulation is achieved through avoiding a direct appointment of the board and top management by government. An independent appointments committee can be set up to nominate board appointees using transparent criteria, and then subjecting the appointees to parliamentary scrutiny and ratification. A board so constituted can then have the authority to hire qualified professionals into top management positions. This is the model the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) has fought so hard without success to impress upon government in relation to the structures of the IBA and ZNBC.
Independent regulation achieved in form and substance is likely to quieten the anxiety in many citizens that their rights are about to be truncated by the impending regulation of social media, which, as Zeynep Tufekci observed in the summer of 2015 with regards to Facebook in Turkey, ‘is among the few spaces outside of government control’ and which ‘challenge governmental control over the censored mass media sphere.’
Questions can also be asked whether existing laws are not sufficient to cover the online offences the government has been talking about. For instance, the same laws that apply to defamation and fraud offline can be used to address these offences online. In fact, as an example, over three years ago in the UK, the chairperson of the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, Lord Richard Best made a similar suggestion in his report with regards to his country and sounded this warning: ‘We need to be careful: we need to balance people’s right to freedom of expression with implementing the criminal law, whether the offences are committed online or offline.’ No doubt the law may need a second look and possible strengthening in parts to conform with the dynamics of the newer technologies but enacting sweeping legislation may be going overboard, potentially leading to rights violations.
It is also possible to shift focus from regulation to education or to balance one with the other. How about educating citizens about using social media the right way? I have found this very persuasive, particularly in thinking about how it can be incorporated in the curricula in schools. In the words of Lord Best, ‘Educating the next generation about how they should behave in the technological world is as important as teaching them the rights and wrongs of how to behave in person.’
The main argument here can be restated for avoidance of doubt, and that is, many citizens probably share some of the concerns raised by the government about social media abuse. There is quite some consensus against cyberbullying, fake news, hoaxes, fraud, defamation, and the lot. What many do not agree is that regulation, especially under the current regulatory framework which is yoked to the state, can address these vices without destroying the democratic virtues of social media. And there is a good reason for this disquiet: state-controlled regulators have a tendency of being used as prefects on duty for those who control the state rather than for public interest. A clear separation in form and substance between the state and the regulators need to be achieved before any regulation is contemplated. In addition, the government may wish to think about whether existing laws, maybe with a little rejigging, can be sufficient to cover online offences. Lastly, the answer may well lie in educating rather than regulating citizens.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Chanda Mfula is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, UK. His research interests currently focus on the use of social media in the performance of the democratic roles of journalism, particularly where this involves (or results from) circumvention strategies against restrictions imposed on mainstream media.
He is also an alumnus of the University of Leicester, UK, where he obtained an MA in Communications, Media and Public Relations and is former One-World Broadcasting fellow.