The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) early this month announced their sixth (6th) edition of the Uganda Social Media Conference which will be held online from 25th to 26th, August 2021 at the Kampala Serena Hotel —under the theme “Digital democracy in a Post Pandemic World”.
The conference will bring together key stakeholders from the government, civil society, academia, researchers, policy-makers, and the media for a constructive exchange on the impact of social media on the state and society —highlighting both, opportunities and challenges it brings.
The 6th edition conference will discuss topics including;
Tackling emerging digital threats: Extremism, trafficking, and Radicalization
Radicalization and propaganda are taking a new form on social media and there are concerns that social media giants haven’t done enough to tackle this problem. ISIS and other terrorist organizations are now targeting vulnerable youth on social media with so much ease and sophistication online.
As society increasingly embraces the internet, so opportunities for those wishing to use it for terrorism have grown. The internet offers terrorists and extremists the capability to communicate, collaborate and convince. We must examine how the internet influences the process of radicalization: how a person comes to support terrorism and forms of extremism associated with terrorism.
The online distribution of terrorist propaganda and violent extremist content has become a recurring theme in international politics, as well as a cause of concern for Internet companies. Terrorist groups have mastered the use of the Internet for propaganda, attempting to win the ‘information war’, especially through social media campaigns.
While the Islamic State has suffered defeats in the Middle East, recent efforts to bolster its profile online have involved talks on forums of establishing a new caliphate in Africa. The global pandemic has also revealed the urgent need to address the use of digital technology in and against trafficking. Online, demand has been channeled “through social media, the dark web, and messaging platforms” which provide easy access to potential victims but hide the identity of the perpetrators.
Yet, due to the unique complexities of jurisdictions in which content may be posted, distributed, or read, as well as the possible breaches of freedom of expression by filtering or censoring online content, governments have not yet found a common global framework. The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) is an industry-led initiative that has been launched by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube to curb the spread of terrorist content online.
Citizen journalism vs digital newsrooms: Building a consensus for new media
Social media’s complex symbiotic relationship with mainstream media is still evident in powerful ways. There are questions of legitimacy between the public and private media. Tensions between traditional and modern forms of communication are reflected in the online clash of views over “appropriate” online content, moral values, and perceived threats to national security.
Citizen journalism is a rapidly evolving form of journalism, which has enabled ordinary people to report newsworthy situations around them. Nowadays mainstream media do not serve as the only source of news. The alternative news sources on the Internet, such as blogs, web portals, and social networking sites give a good competition to mainstream media.
Media communication is under the pressure of democratization today. It is characterized by preserving some elements from mainstream (or old) media while it evolves under the pressure of new technologies. Being a mouthpiece for the masses is one thing, but how do you continually strive for credibility in a digital world where social media sometimes provides a distorted perception of the news?
Impact of social media on mental health: Hitting the pause button
While many of us enjoy staying connected on social media, excessive use can fuel feelings of anxiety, depression, isolation, and FOMO (Fear of Missing out). Digital media connects people in ways never before possible, enabling users to maintain friendships across time and distance.
It enables those who are socially isolated or somehow set apart from their immediate physical community to connect with like-minded or like-situated people. However, the internet has a darker side to it. Many people are reporting cases of increased depression, suicide and online hate during and post Covid-19 Pandemic.
It’s important to remember that social media can never be a replacement for real-world human connection. It requires in-person contact with others to trigger the hormones that alleviate stress and make you feel happier, healthier, and more positive.
Ironically for a technology that’s designed to bring people closer together, spending too much time engaging with social media can actually make you feel more lonely and isolated—and exacerbate mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Social media platforms such as Twitter can be hotspots for spreading hurtful rumors, lies, and abuse that can leave lasting emotional scars. When do you hit the pause button? And how best can you help those in need of psychosocial support?
Digital Diplomacy: The rise of algorithms and implications of big tech in African Institutions, Governments, and Individuals
The coined phrase “digital diplomacy” is widely used in the context of Internet governance debates and digital policy-making. Social media portrays different realities with different narratives promoted by various actors. This poses new challenges like biased algorithms, online censorship, targeted manipulation, and the like.
As the past few years have shown, social media platforms are not simple tools of engagement, they are huge business empires influencing our ideas, our actions, and our politics. Social media sites are less seemingly neutral conduits of information and idea exchange. Their recommendation engines and algorithms are deciding what speeches to amplify, and what to give less attention to.
Social media algorithms steer us into groups and conversations — factual or not. They’re selling tools to advertisers — which can include political operatives — that target us with certain types of speech. And their leaders make intentional, political decisions on which policies to enforce when, and whose voices are important for their business needs. One of the most important debates of our time is around who should govern the internet. Who should be held accountable?
Governments must define responsibility for the harms caused by these business models, but should not be in the business of regulating actual speech. The power over the majority of online speech is concentrated in a few hands, and that also has to change, which will likely be addressed through anti-monopoly or anti-trust actions.
Through the deployment of social media, digital diplomacy has enabled public officials and citizens to: set an agenda, exert influence, and open up formerly private processes to public scrutiny for transparency and accountability. The big question is how do they regulate big tech from funneling biased algorithms?
For a good reason, the majority of social media users are concerned about who accesses their data on social media sites. Incidents of data breaches have alarmed many users and forced them to rethink their relationships to social media and the security of their personal information.
In March 2018, a series of reports from major publications such as the New York Times and the Guardian exposed the fact that digital firm Cambridge Analytica gained access to over 50 million Facebook users’ personal data without their consent.
Governments are also increasingly purchasing sophisticated technology to monitor their citizens’ behavior on social media. Once the preserve of the world’s foremost intelligence agencies, this form of mass surveillance has made its way to a range of countries. A case in point is the pegasus controversy with Israel. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have opened up new possibilities for automated mass surveillance.
The rise of Global Social movements and social media: A critical moment
Social media is more than views and opinions shared online. The technology can also help orchestrate protests that move beyond the digital realm. #ENDSARS (Nigeria) and #IcantBreathe (USA) are some of the most famous hashtags from 2020. The past year has opened the world’s eyes to social injustices globally.
This year, Africa’s young people have stood at the forefront of the continent’s fights for social and civil justice. With hashtags in one hand and a will to defend the defenseless in the other, young people have propelled the crises of Africa’s injustices to the world stage. Digital media is also allowing people around the world to build communities, organize activities and make their voices heard on a multitude of issues.
Through online petitions and charities, people across the cybersphere can act on causes about which they care. Change.org, which helps individuals to start petitions and advance their causes, has enabled more than 123 million users to attain their own goals on almost 15,000 issues in 196 countries, according to its website.
Similarly, digital media is helping people to support chosen causes financially. online giving is growing, particularly in response to humanitarian disasters. How can social movements birthed by social media sustain their momentum and galvanize their gains? What are the threats posed and opportunities?
Social media and Elections
Social media is becoming increasingly central to election campaigns around the world. Social media has helped develop new spaces for political engagement and civil debate. Using popular sites like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp – civil society organizations have used social media to add transparency to electoral processes in Africa. For many governments especially those in Africa, social media can validate the legitimacy of an election through the click of a button.
Nonetheless, new issues are now emerging such as fake news, voter manipulation, and disinformation in African elections. The absence of a strategy by big tech to address misinformation has incited election-related violence in many parts of the continent.
Initially, digital technology and social media held out the promise that they would help level an uneven political playing field in new democracies. The thinking was that social media platforms would provide an efficient and relatively inexpensive way for opposition parties to organize, establish a presence, get their ideas out, and grow their support base.
Anecdotal research shows that social media is increasing campaign costs, entrenching inequalities, and maintaining the gap between political parties in Uganda and beyond. The reason is simple: established political parties and well-off politicians are better able to invest in, and hence profit from, the digital space.
For instance, Uganda’s smaller parties find themselves in a bind: they are acutely aware of the promise of social media. But they are unable to harness this potential. And their online messages are often drowned out by the social media mobilization of the main party – NRM.
In addition, many governments attempt to limit social media have been occurring during election periods or at unanticipated moments of instability. This happened in Ethiopia during the internet shutdown following the “coup attempt” in June 2019. We need to understand the diverse and complex ways social media is shaping political engagement.
Re-framing the climate change agenda on social media
Social media has increasingly become a vital tool for climate change advocacy. Social media encourages greater knowledge of climate change, mobilization of climate change activists, space for discussing the issue with others, and online discussions that frame climate change as a negative for society.
Recently at the UN’s Climate Action Summit, photos from climate strikes around the world emerged on all platforms, demanding action on the impending climate crisis. Many have credited widely known climate activists – Vanessa Nakatte and Greta Thunberg, with launching this climate change movement globally, setting an example for others who believe the actions of one individual can have an impact. This has been amplified through their increased use of social media to draw public action on climate change.
This illustrates the power of social media, showing a glimpse of how the conversation has shifted in the past few years, and how the conversation is taking place on different digital platforms. We are also seeing how long-term climate decisions to save the planet are at risk from targeted attacks online. Fake news and skeptical views are putting the climate change fight in jeopardy. Recently, when the Amazon Rainforest was burning – the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro time and again downplayed the emergency – worsening a planetary crisis that is already dire.
The Uganda Social Media Conference will be hosted in a hybrid format to ensure effective interaction between online participants and onsite participants. This is a way of following SOPs and directives on Covid-19 that restricts gatherings that could easily spread the coronavirus.