In Summary
  • In the 2016 US elections, Russian bloggers bombarded voters with divisive messaging that saw Donald Trump elected President
  • How much outside influence is precipitating intolerance and sudden calls for secession in Kenya?
  • It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish fake news from real news. In the past we called such acts of deceit propaganda, or disinformation. 

In 2012, the world celebrated the influence of social media in bringing about the Arab Spring, causing the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak.

Social media was heralded as the voice of the people.

Analysts predicted a wider revolution that was expected to bring down the Syrian government, possibly spread into sub-Saharan Africa and remove despots who have clung to power for too long. 

Syria did not fall. But it is evident that violent, sectarian unrest can be linked directly to so-called citizen journalism, a euphemism for social media.   

With the exception of Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, and Ghana, sub-Saharan Africa is yet to experience the full impact of social media. In some countries, such as Cameroon, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Rwanda, social media is tightly controlled and is often shut down outright by security agents.

Like a hurricane changing course, the social media virus is now focusing its venomous fangs at bastions of liberal democracy. A simple referendum by the British people to either remain or exit the European Union turned disastrous, and now threatens the UK's own unity if Scotland chooses to bolt out of the union.

In the 2016 US elections, Russian bloggers bombarded voters with divisive messaging that saw Donald Trump elected president. Voters had no idea the news they were consuming from social media was laced with falsehoods. 

This was the rise of the concept of what is variously referred to as “Fake News” or “Alternative Truth.” The extent of fake news damage in the US is yet to be determined.

RUSSIAN INFLUENCE

In Spain, the Catalonians have declared independence, forcing the government to enforce a constitutional clause for direct rule. Here, too, the Russians are being blamed.

A November 9 Newsweek article, "In Catalonia, Is Russia Trying to Influence Another Vote?" by John Lowe, noted:

Ahead of the planned vote Sunday, which Spain's government has banned, the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFR) at the Atlantic Council has assessed claims of Russian interference outlined in a story in Spain’s El Pais newspaper, and found some evidence to support a role for the Russian propaganda machine in playing up the tensions in the region.

It is not yet clear whether Russia is rekindling Europe's romance with nationalism. The 19th century saw the creation of several European nations such as Serbia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece as a result of uprisings against Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Germany and Italy too were created by uniting several regional states into single states with a common national identity.

The early 1990s saw another breakup, with Croatia and Slovenia seceding from Yugoslavia, precipitating a war between Croats and Serbians. 

Then followed Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian Serbs were not happy, and that led to a war that lasted three years before the new republics of Serbia and Montenegro surfaced in 2006. The last to be created was Kosovo.

More European nations may yet break up. If that happens, disgruntled elements globally will legitimise their resolve for self-rule, and that will be a real crisis in Africa, where there are several nations within a country.

OUTSIDE INFLUENCE

The tragedy in Africa is that we don’t know how much outsiders meddle with our affairs. In Kenya, for example, we must ask ourselves very difficult questions. These include:

  1. How much outside influence is precipitating intolerance and sudden calls for secession? 

  2. How are we to validate news? 

  3. How do we cope with social media when it is used to threaten national unity?

  4. At a time when resources are being devolved to communities, whose interest does calls for secession serve?

  5. Does the right to self-determination supersede the national interest?

  6. What steps must we take? 

These are hard questions that we must draw experience from the past to answer. As they say, history repeats itself. 

These divisions and deceptions we are witnessing existed in the 16th century. Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli argued that it is not true living virtuously “necessarily leads to happiness.” To him misery, although wicked, enables a prince to rule.

It did not matter to him whether you are loved or feared. Indeed if he were to choose between the two, he thought it would be safer to be feared rather than loved.

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