The Berlin Wall moment for digital activism has to be the mass protests that took place in North Africa, starting from Tunisia in 2010, and spreading into other parts of the Middle East. It is often referred to as the Arab Spring; though in retrospect, many believe it has not turned out to be anything etc.
like spring. I have spoken to citizens in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, and there is certainly a feeling of “nothing really changed”, but I believe some things did change. For starters, the answers that many young people give to questions such as “what are you doing?”, “what’s on your mind?”, “what’s happening?”, now goes beyond updates on their private lives or friends and family. We now know that the question, what’s happening? can now be “we have #occupied Flagstaff house” as it was with the #OccupyFlagStaff or #OccupyGhana campaign in 2014, as it is more popularly known. What’s happening can now be the #SomeoneTellCNN campaign by the Kenyans in protest of CNN’s exaggerated reportage on Kenya while the Pope was visiting as with other times CNN gets it wrong and Kenyans on Twitter (POT) gets it trending again.
The Arab Spring inspired movements around the world; the most notable one being the Occupy Movement.
The #OccupyWallStreet protest in 2011 was the most reported of the others that happened all around the world from the Netherlands to Norway, Nigeria to South Africa, Germany, France, Mongolia, Israel, Mexico, England, and South Korea. These movements burned so bright because the Arab Spring had lit the fire of civil disobedience and activism in a digitally connected world. I am not one of those who say these movements started via social media, but I do know that while social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, helped to spread campaigns like #OccupyNigeria, we met offline to activate our plans before we hit the streets to protest against Nigeria’s #FuelSubsidyScam. Prior to the time we took to the streets, we were meeting and debating on the incessant large-scale government corruption in the oil sector. The fuel price increase was the spark we needed to take on big government and corruption. If the masses could not immediately relate to both, they understood what a fuel price increase meant to their lives.
Now That We’ve Got a Voice, What Are We Going to Do with It?
The question used to be “how do we ensure we are heard?” but that question has since been answered in the guise of digital platforms. Political leaders, policy makers, corporate leaders are permanently tuned to our voices in the digital space. They have even come to be part of the conversation. In my early days of tweeting, the closest thing to engaging a government official online was being able to tweet at an aide who was himself an aide to another aide who was an assistant to the president. These days, we have presidents running their accounts, at times, personally, at least President Donald Trump does. Where such accounts are not run by the president, you are certain that being digitally engaged is top priority, going by the shorter time it now takes to get government to react to things. What has changed here is that expectations are now higher; the president is your Twitter neighbour. We now have a voice; our voices are being heard, but what do you think whoever is listening is hearing? More often than not, it is noise.
Two Goats and a Lion
I watched this trending video where two waterbucks – I prefer to call them goats - were locked in a battle with each other, so they missed the danger advancing in their direction, a lion closing in one them. The lion finally caught one, while the other got away. This is a classic representation of online spaces around the continent. You see citizens arguing and fighting over issues that, when properly tabled and discussed, would be rendered “pedestrian” and “irrelevant”. Unfortunately, our egos get enlarged with every increase in digital clout, so we tend to see things much differently, and make them bigger and more important than they really are. While these largely pedestrian conversations are going on, we miss out on the big issues. Depending on your country, they could include dwindling living standards, unemployment and job losses, maternal and child mortality, election reforms, climate change, out of school children and the failing education system, corruption and mismanagement, human development, decaying infrastructure, among others. Even though digital platforms have helped to deregulate activism, some people still believe that these issues are the preserve and interest of certain individuals; hence do not participate in the discussions.