As Techdirt readers know, there’s a bit of a debate going on currently about the influence that social media exerts on politics and society. If you are still a little undecided as to where you stand on this vexed subject, Cavaye Djibril, Speaker of the National Assembly in Cameroon, has a few thoughts on the subject (pdf):
I would like at this juncture to deplore what is developing into a new form of terrorism — the social malaise now affecting the cyberspace, that is, the insidious effects of the social media.
The social media, which was initially perceived as a medium for online communication and information sharing, is now being used for misinformation, and even intoxication and manipulation of consciences thereby instilling fear in the general public. In fact, it has become as dangerous as a missile.
A fascinating post on Global Voices explains that Djibril’s diatribe is part of a much larger government attack on social media. Television, radio and newspaper outlets controlled by the government have all piled in. Here’s what the Cameroon Tribune wrote:
A careful analysis of the situation tells of a phenomenon that is proving to be dangerous for society if no measures are taken to scale it down. This is important especially as elections are approaching. People with political ambitions may dive into it and use it to fight their opponents.
Well, that’s certainly true, but here’s why the Cameroonian government really hates social media:
The immediate cause of the government’s outrage was the deadly train derailment in Eseka, some 74 miles west of Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, which resulted in the death of at least 80 people and injured over 600 on October 21, 2016. While social media users were nimble in sharing information about the disaster in real time, government officials and government-owned traditional media were slow to respond to, and inform the public about, the accident. In fact, pictures and videos of the tragedy were already being posted on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms when the government and Camrail (a subsidiary of the French conglomerate Bolloré that manages the railway system in Cameroon) were still denying that an accident occurred.
But it didn’t stop there. As the Global Voices post notes, when government officials finally admitted that there had been an accident, social media continued to challenge the government version, which tried to play down the number of dead, and to lay the blame on allegedly-defective Chinese-made carriages. However, what really seems to have riled the Cameroon government is the following:
Most significantly, many Cameroonians criticized President Paul Biya on social media for what they perceived as his lukewarm attitude towards the tragedy — not only did the president send a message of condolence to the victims from Switzerland (incidentally via social media), he did not return home immediately after the accident.
The flood of criticism and mockery that social media users directed towards the country’s President seem to have been the last straw. As well as coordinated attacks by officials and government-controlled media, there are now rumors that the authorities are drafting a social media bill to stifle these kinds of posts.
The Cameroonian saga confirms just how powerful social media can be in holding those in power to account, and exposes the risk that thin-skinned rulers might take offense and abuse their powers to strike back. Luckily, this kind of thing could never happen in the US.