Memes Aside, African Leaders Still Don't Get Social Media

The #M7Challenge presents an interesting paradox when it comes to how African leaders interact with social media. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni broke the internet by stopping to make a call on a cheap phone while seated by the roadside at Kyeirumba village in Isingiro district. He had travelled upcountry in Western Uganda to celebrate the World Population day.

This photo inadvertently launched a thousand imitators.

On the whole, African leaders tend to view social media as a waste of time. Their default perspective is that it is a platform for spreading rumours and falsehoods and at best, and if it's not controlled, it could be used to run revolutions and bring longstanding regimes to their knees.

Very often, these leaders are objects of ridicule, with memes and caricatures popping up every other day, and parody accounts making fun of them at every turn.

However, some leaders have figured out how to use social media to their benefit. Facebook and Twitter lend themselves easily to PR machines, and they are able to cause a storm every time they post something on social media. In countries with a history of heavy media regulation, social media has led to rise of citozen journalists who The echelons of power are left in wonderment--and in dilemma. What they fear odiously, turns out as an ally to reckon with. In a second. Just like that.

Just a pic, and some unsolicited photoshop magic, then a tweet, two, three, a meme, and then an deluge!

What shouldn’t come as a surprise is that this wasn’t the first time Museveni made an unscheduled stop. In the countryside, where the old man of the hat remains quite popular, Museveni is renown for stepping out of his motorcade to have a word or two with the locals, despite the obvious security threat this poses to him.

In 2006, the presidential motorcade was shot at by warriors and it’s reported that the president wanted to step out of his armoured Mercedes to find out what was happening.

But this was before social media went mainstream, a long time ago in cat years.

There is 200 times more data being uploaded to the internet now than was generated 3 years ago. While our political leaders are gripped with paranoia, what mostly constitutes of these exabytes of data are cat pictures and memes.

Memes have become the lingua franca of the internet. They can be aptly used to rally people to different causes. They can even be used as weapons in the information wars raging on the internet, like the weapons of mass destruction of the dot.me generation.

Social media has made it easier for millions of people connected to mobilise for collective action, be it for social good, marketing, politics, you name it.

In the wake of the Arab spring in 2011, social media which was widely thought to be a pseudo-public intellectuals’ haven, quickly turned into a weapon of regime change. The next step taken was more of a knee-jerk reaction - laws curtailing the freedoms of assembly and expression were quickly passed. For Uganda’s case was the 2013 Public Order management Act. While such a draconian legislation is at best, unfounded, it vests so much power to the police and supporting security agencies that every threat, no matter how small or insignificant, gets blown out of proportion.

One would then ask why with the proliferation of mobile devices and drop in data prices, the landscape that keeps the strongmen awake hasn’t collectively risen to oust them out of power? The short answer is the preemptive cover the governments continue to confide in, changing laws and amending their constitutions to suit their needs.

Social media users have agitated for change, but this agitation is being met with clampdowns and aggression.

Zimbabwe’s ruling party Zanu-PF recently warned protesters of the #ThisFlag movement that their efforts would be met with violence. Their only crime was demanding for restoration of sanity in the economy and healthcare and country at large.

Despite these challenges, we continue to see more awareness from governments. Budgets for government social media teams are rising, and they are learning to use social media to make government work more visible, especially when it comes to communication related to security matters. There's also the fact that these governments are 'investing' in all kinds of surveillance software and participating in global cyber programmes.

While the #M7Challenge served as perfect fodder for bored pandas languishing in the cyber space, it shows that memes and gags have the potential of drastically influencing the narrative, not only for the young turks but across all age brackets, and transcending borders.

It was also an indicator of how geopolitics can be folded like an origami sheet, with comic relief at the center. Kenyans led the charge. Almost all the viral photoshopped pictures emerged from there. Then some leaders in the private sector jumped onto the hashtag as marketing gimmicks. Boy, weren’t they successful? Perhaps this explains a joke I once heard that out of every 10 Kenyans, 9 are bloggers and the remainder is a DJ! These guys had fun on the challenge. As the chain reaction would have, Ugandans and others soon followed suit. International media - The Guardian, BBC, everyone - went head over heels for this story.

Turns out that the Government PR machine had executed one of the most successful PR stunts ever, entirely by accident. Widely popular opposition figure, Dr. Kizza Besigye had been released on bail on that exact day Museveni posed for that photo, after a two month too long stint in jail.

Again, just a picture and some unsolicited Photoshop magic, then a tweet, two, three. A bundle of memes. Then an deluge! All that with nothing spent on advertising.

In this year alone, the Ugandan government has shut down social media twice after failing to build sufficient intellectual bandwidth to counter dissenting voices. If they don't like what's being said, they shut down the conversation altogether - pull the cord at the suspicion of overwhelming anger, or in security speak, 'safeguarding national security'.

The #M7Challenge is revealing just how powerful social media can be, and it offers a glimpse of how it can be turned on its head to push a certain agenda, particularly in the wake of opposition ‘propaganda’.

African leaders and governments don't understand what's going on. However, their people are very aware of what's happening online. Combine this with a thirst to contribute to a cause, and the revelation that the emperor is actually naked - in this case, governments have no idea what they're doing online - and this has the potential to start something with far-reaching consequences.

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