In justifying why he would rather be feared, Machiavelli made reference to the Battle of Zama in Tunisia fought in 202 BC, which marked the end of the Second Punic War.

Here, a Roman army led by Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (Scipio), with the support of Numidian leader Masinissa, defeated the Carthaginian army led by the commander, Hannibal.

He wrote:

Although Hannibal's army consisted of men of various races, they were never rebellious because they feared their leader. Machiavelli says this required "inhuman cruelty" which he refers to as a virtue. Scipio's men, on the other hand, were known for their mutiny and dissension, due to Scipio's "excessive mercy" – which was however a source of glory because he lived in a republic.

The moral of the story is not to advocate cruelty but to highlight strategies used by the political class to manage the people on their own terms.

Indeed, we have seen such cruelty among African despots, such as former Central African Republic Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Idi Amin of Uganda and Samuel Doe of Liberia.

COMPLETELY FAKE

All these dictators rose to lead their countries through lies and propaganda. By the time the people realised their deception, the damage had already been done. 

Our levels of intolerance to one another, thanks to unfettered citizen journalism, have reached the levels that catapulted these dictators into power. While the political impact of fake news has hardly been established in the Western world, fragile emerging economies are being torn apart.

In Kenya, for example, prolonged electioneering has given rise to political extremism facilitated by social media. Virtually all presidential candidates used social media to either undermine their opponents or promote themselves. 

In most cases, the truth was perverted and sometimes the news about the candidates was completely fake.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish fake news from real news. In the past we called such acts of deceit propaganda, or disinformation. 

Responsible use of social media has far greater implications than any efforts made before to enhance individual liberties. 

Perhaps The Economist captured the best illustration on use of social media last week, in reference to British political scientist Bernard Crick’s 1962 work, “In Defence of Politics”. In it Crick said:

In a liberal democracy, nobody gets exactly what he wants, but everyone broadly has the freedom to lead the life he chooses. However, without decent information, civility and conciliation, societies resolve their differences by resorting to coercion.

We therefore need decent information, civility and conciliation. Unfortunately, we have become more intolerant to one another, even if we know the sources of the information we use to fight our own brothers and sisters are suspect and not validated. 

By doing so, we surrender our own liberties to the political class. 

RISE UP AND SAY 'NO'

The intent of politicians is not to liberate their followers from divisive, destructive misinformation but to use it to make them dependent on their own thoughts.

The political strategy of “divide and rule” was established centuries ago and has worked perfectly for politicians. Politicians will continue to divide people along tribal lines to maintain loyalty, and it is for the people to rise up and say 'No'. 

I have said before that social media is a double-edged sword. We can use the same sword to restore our dignity, or bring the people together to build an inclusive nation.

Before taking any step on any news, let us try to verify its source, use logic rather than mob justice and reach out to those who “purportedly” created the news. We must begin to educate everybody on the responsible use of social media.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. @bantigito

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