Mwenda: Besigye won polls via social media not votes


Senior journalist Andrew Mwenda says social media has killed the brains of many young people.

He cites a case where, in the olden days, to publish an opinion, one needed to convince editors with the intellectual rigour of one’s argument which is nolonger the case with Facebook and WhatsApp.

“So you had to back your argument with facts, tone your language and improve your writing style,” he reminisces of the past.

He adds: “With social media, anyone with an idea, however stupid and incoherent, however uninformed and ridiculous, however uncouth and insulting, can post it on social media and get their voice heard – if anyone hears them at all.”

According to Mwenda, while this may have “democratised” public discourse, it has also adulterated it.

“Just imagine if all you needed to get a PhD was to write 300 pages of whatever came to your mind. What would happen to academia? That is what has happened to public debate.”

In his article titled: “The power of social media” and published by The Independent Magazine on April 4, 2016, suggests FDC presidential candidate Kizza Besigye set out to win 2016 elections without grassroots structures but solely relying on social media.

“Besigye’s claims of electoral fraud have been greatly helped by the actions of the EC, the police, UCC and the inactions (or inadequate actions) of NRM and Museveni.”

Mwenda says mobile Internet subscriptions have grown by 700% from 850,000 in 2011 to 6.8 million by end of 2015.

As a result, Internet users have grown by 155% from 4.7 million about 12 million.

The Uganda All Media Products Survey research released by Ipsos in 2013, on Internet usage shows that 66%Ugandans reported using the Internet (33% several times a day and additional 33% two to three times a week). In addition, 39% reported spending 1-3 hours on every visit, while 52% reported spending between 15 minutes to one hour on every visit.

Ugandans, according to him, are spending more time online.

In the same study, 53% reported using the Internet mainly for emails, 50% on social media.

Those aged 18-29 reported more social media activity than any other age group.

In the study 85% reported Facebook being the most dominant social media platform used, 32%Google+ and 29% twitter.

He says the 18-29 voters’ segment in urban and peri urban areas is one where Besigye has the strongest appeal.

“This is why his supporters were able to take control of social media, a platform that allows multiplication and amplification of messages on unprecedented scale.”

He says Museveni supporters are largely the rural poor who participate less on social media and therefore contribute less to public discourse.

“Whenever Museveni posted something on his Facebook page, Besigye supporters would flood it like a swarm of bees posting criticism and grotesque insults of the president.”

Mwenda argues that Museveni would have done himself better by closing down his social media since “Museveni’s pages are still dominated by content from his enemies”.

Having chased Museveni supporters off social media, Mwenda writes, the Besigye machine created a virtual community of like-minded people who convinced themselves that they represented the whole of Uganda.

“Every big Besigye rally would be posted on Facebook and Whatsapp and reproduced thousands of times, a factor that made it look like they were tens of thousands of rallies. This highly effective, self-organised campaign created an electoral psychology that Besigye had won the election even before balloting began.”

The journalist agrees Museveni campaign response was weak, the strategy adopted inadequate to meet the challenge, and the efforts scattered while Besigye’s supporters retained overwhelming control of social media.

“This created a danger. Social media is susceptible to misrepresentations, forgeries and lies especially in the hands of highly impassioned and creative groups. Fake results can be announced even before closure of polling. Videos, photographs and documents showing rigging in progress can easily be manufactured to create a virtual reality of massive rigging. This would make it difficult to protect the integrity of the polling process.”

He says opposition activists had begun producing stage-managed videos and photo-shopped pictures showing massive rigging underway.

“There was even a hashtag on Twitter called “rigging in progress” where evidence of ballot stuffing was being manufactured using modern software to create an alternative reality.”

Mwenda concludes that Besigye who has had very little organisational infrastructure to give him victory had his voice amplified by social media which allowed easy mobilisation of his supporters.

“Besigye proved that you do not need actual votes to “win.” You can use social media to create a particular mindset; especially among your passionate supporters – that you won,” Mwenda concludes.

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