The social media shapes the mind of the mass followers. Majority of Liberian have capitalized on the image of bad governance, poverty, natural disasters and use digital technology and social media to send out hate messages at national government, and bullies each other in the name of party solidarity. Liberian news is horrible and they spread like wildfire through major media like Aljazeera, BBC Focus on Africa, Facebook and more which are mostly controlled by western industries.
European knowing how powerful social media and digital technology is, they have always kept a good media image. There are hundreds of homicides, robbery, corruptions, and disasters that take place in Europe, America, Asia that are uncounted for on their media. Instead of focusing on negativity, European, American, Asian technology innovator, entrepreneurs, and marketers have utilized social media and digital technology to promote their business ventures, innovates and campaigns through online marketing and branding.
Clearly, the internet penetration in Liberia, now, social media has increasingly become an indispensable tool in Liberia’s political spaces. Its wide reach has rendered it an asset to political leaders who use it to spread information, and to mobilize supporters during election cycles. However, the use of social media has presented a dilemma for conflict prevention and peacebuilding. It was used to incite hatred and violence during the 2011 and 2017 elections and also, the just-ended senatorial and representatives by-elections between top two candidates Mr. Abraham Darius Dillon and Madam CC Weh and also, Miss Talia Urey and representative-elect Mr. Abu Kamara where hateful and incendiary messages were circulated through popular social media platforms, leading to calls for regulation to stem the spread of hate messages. The same trend was recorded during the Grand Cape Mount County by-election. On the other hand, it is also used to provide counter-messaging and promote peace messages.
Social media and digital technologies as used by Liberia citizens and leaders, thus poses a threat to stability but also presents opportunities for peacebuilding. This article seeks to identify some of the opportunities and limitations of social media and other digital platforms on the political landscape, especially how they are used to mobilize, monitor, respond to and prevent violence, as well as their usage in peacebuilding.
Undoubtedly, the just ended Monsterrado County senatorial and district #15 representatives’ elections saw the dissemination of hateful and divisive language through the media. However, these elections were particularly unique from those before, owing to the use of new media forms in addition to the traditional media. This included the popular use of phone technology through SMS text messages sent en masse and the use of internet technology, especially Facebook, email, online newspapers, and other social networking platforms. Numerous reports indicated the role played by new media in inflaming and spreading hate speech leading up to the violence.
On the other hand, peace actors used the same platforms to call and campaign for peace, a feat that was replicated during the 2017 elections. Television broadcasters went on social media such as Twitter and Facebook to spread positive messages and encourage viewers to remain calm and patient as the election results were announced. It was during this election that social media also became a visible component of campaigning as candidates seized on its potential to mobilize supporters. In 2017, political actors across the spectrum have utilized social media platforms to mobilize supporters and even hired people to manage their social media accounts.
Social media and digital technology present an opportunity to report and document election-related violence. Online monitoring through crowd-sourcing enables the identification of appropriate technologies and tools to track and analyze structural tensions, social divides and friction points. Using SMS, Facebook, Twitter, Messengers of Peace and other Liberian peace groups have been able to report, map and document violent incidents on a mass scale, providing information that journalists could not ordinarily access using traditional means. Facebook has allowed users to share experiences and witness accounts of elections, while other sites have permitted the uploading and sharing of videos showing violence and thus enabling the mapping of violence and generating public attention which would facilitate prevention efforts as well as responses by government and other actors.
After what I have said, it is important to note that social media or digital technology does not actually cause the violence but is simply a tool to inflame and exploit existing divisions. Digital technology and social media platforms are employed to not only provoke emotions but also spread false information or so-called ‘fake news’. Another challenge has been the lack of necessary tools and skills to monitor and detect online activity which makes it difficult for government and non-state actors to respond to activity that may lead to or propel violence. This is especially problematic due to an abundance of platforms on which information is shared faster than before and to a wider audience. To politicians, these tools have nevertheless enabled them to reach audiences at a lower cost compared to that required for on-the-ground mobilization.
However, the online space remains a marketplace of ideas, which contributes to development and requires protection from unnecessary interference and irresponsible users especially through self-regulation and moderation by site managers and users. This will guarantee users their rights to freedom of expression. The protection of these rights and freedoms, however, also requires the limitation of hate messages because hateful comments hijack legitimate public debate.
I would like to conclude this article with the following recommendations:
State and non-state actors need to enhance coordination and linkages in initiatives using technology and social media to curb electoral violence, including closely working with stakeholders’ peace forums at the county and community levels;
Internet service providers, telephone companies and the state should carry out public information and education campaigns as part of interventions to curb online hatred. Education can increase the responsibility of individual users and thereby promoting a culture of intolerance towards online hate. When people are informed, they can report abuse and also name and shame violators and sustain peace;
Any efforts by the government to deal with online hate crimes should be guided by the Constitution and should not be used as a license to violate other individual rights and freedoms especially;
There is a need for the adaptation of Liberia’s cybercrime act 2019, and the creation of Liberia’s cybersecurity policy and strategy, this would help to protect and fear tech end-users from sending out hate messages in Liberia’s cyberspace.
I put my pen down for now, before doing that, let me remind you that digital technology and social media are here to stay. They have changed the way we live and they will continue to do so for a long time. Let’s sustain and enjoy peace while using it!