On November 23 2011 the Ugandan journalist Charles Onyango Obbo had an article up under the headline 'The refusal to love a dictator can be as good as a bullet' in the Sunday Monitor.
He is writing from a Ugandan context, and referring to the people taking to the streets in the Middle East, suggesting Africans to use a more sophisticated, psychological tool to express their dislike of a dictator:
'I think one of the most effective African tools is what might seem ineffective and cheap to do – the withdrawal of affection for the Big Man. This is expressed via the cold shoulder, the refusal to attend a rally. Or, if the people attend, the resolution not to clap or humour the despot with forced laughs at his stale jokes.This form of protest is difficult for a strongman to deal with. Because if, for example, the opposition come to the street, they can be beaten, killed, or arrested.'
Interesting strategy, and it made me wonder if it could be transferred from the rallies to social media - now that big men - presidents and politicians, but also civil society organisation leaders, are embracing social media dearly? In fact, it made me wonder a whole lot about the dynamics on social media and my own experiences. So, here's a couple of thoughts about big men, Africa, social media and the psychology of the dynamics in between:
'How do you set the limit between privacy and work?' (limits move all the time, no clear answer, but make your own rules and adjust);
'Will I put too much of myself on display?' (it depends on your own limits for privacy, for what you want to share, have to say, how you do it and who you engage with);
'What if people disagree with my opinions?' (probably, but I'd encourage honesty all the time)
More advice here.
What would you do in real life?
However, the worst thing about putting yourself out there on social media may actually be when it turns out that nobody notices you . On Twitter that may for example be illustrated by following a lot who never follow you back (though you desperately tweet everything you can get your hands on). On Facebook the rejection may be felt even harder.
The dynamics of social media are rather similar to real life: You don't want to be ignored when you decide to participate, you want to be accepted by the community, you want a place in that hierarchy, you want to be valued for your contributions, and you may even want a position where you are given power in the term that you may be the one people look to for aknowledgement and information.
The dynamics of social media - to put it in a real life Tanzanian context - could possibly be compared to what may take place during a tea break in the middle of a launch at Karimjee Hall (or maybe even the recent TedXDar or the BarCamp?).
Note the dynamics off the live stream: Who has got something to say others want to hear? Who comes to gently grab your hand, insist on conversation while conspiringly dragging you away from the crowd? Who is being applauded? Who sets themselves in a corner and goes 'yawn', boring' or 'that makes no point'? Who desperately wants a higher position and to be listened to, but somehow hasn't earned it yet?
Compare Yourself To Others
We count followers, blog readers and amounts of Facebook friends and likes. We compare ourselves to others. Our blogs are being rated in competitions. We look for specific people to react - a feedback from someone in a higher/ more interesting/ exotic position may have more value than 'the ordinary citizen'.
Yes, we do, and we often forget that quantity is only a tiny part of the truth. Like, it may in fact be much more important who we connect with, whose minds we rock, the amount of hearts we touch, and to what extent we are capable of running meaningful conversations which may have an impact beyond cyberspace.
But just as real life, that is terribly hard to put on display, so we may do as below:When President Kikwete entered Twitter, I for instance arrogantly noted 'Look, how come he has so few followers?' I later regretted my arrogance when shaking the man's hand at the Lake Tanganyika Investment Forum in October 2011. The man had in fact just delivered a great speech, so why should I think less of him because someone else appears to be handling his tweets? (I also realised Kikwete is the same age as my father, who would never ever touch social media).
Others note how well Paul Kagame tweets, and admires him for the passion he puts into doing it himself. In Tanzania we analyse the debates between high profile MPs and/or civil society leaders, and we wonder how much is a reflection of real life or what is spin.
Big men also need affection
Ariana Huffington, founder of the world's most popular internet newspaper The Huffington Post, was recently qouted in the Danish daily 'Information', and underlines that the power of digital media is bound to make a difference: 'We have 25 million unemployed or underemployed in this country. We find it hard to really grasp. What does it really mean? Citizen journalism gives us more data, more views, more knowledge than before when we just sent a few journalists. Now we have faces on. It is possible that self-expression is the new entertainment, but it is better for democracy than people who just sit passively and watch TV.'
Big men - whether they come in the shape of presidents, politicians or directors are also real people. That, for instance, turned pretty clear in May 2011 when Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, disagreed with the British journalist, Ian Birrell, on Twitter. People with feelings, people who need the affection of their voters, their constituencies or their employees; people who put themselves out there to a much greater extent than most ordinary (and not so ordinary) citizens do.
Many politicians grow thick skin, but they (or their communication advisors) want the exact same as the rest - as what we all wanted back in primary school: To be seen, to receive confirmation, to be accepted, a place in that hierarchy which reflects our inner idea of our social position, and to be applauded correctly for our actions and achievements.
Of course, this is only basic psychology, but it is in fact what I retreat to when I try to understand big men. And in my opinion, too many big men ignore these dynamics when it comes to social media.
This may in fact be what really happened when the Tanzanian government’s Open Government Partnership process was launched over a week ago, then heavily criticised, amongst others by Mbwana Alliy at Afrinnovator, and later by Swahili Street here. Note this page is still empty.
Politicians and civil society organisations all over the world hire communication advisors to guide them on social media. In Denmark, the NGO I have been working for since 2010, a board member sceptically asked me if I could guarantee social media would work.
My 'no' came easily. I told him that the technical part was the easy part, but that he and others had to provide the passion, interest and content.
Back to Charles Onyango Obbo and the big men in Africa.
Ignore social media, but not the dynamics
What happens when you don't dare telling our employers that they are on wrong track, that they cannot keep acting on social media as they do in real life, and that their position in real life, hence, is hard to transfer onto a popular social media identity?
Remember the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen' tale 'The Emperor's New Clothes'? Or check the Fake Spokesperson of the Jovernment of Kenya, Alfred Mutua, who pushes all those buttons.
In my experience, from Uganda over Kenya to Tanzania many people will be battling with this structure in many ways. In October I was invited by ActionAid's Global Platform in Dar es Salaam to give feedback on young participants' presentations after having completed their social media training.
In fact, most participants showed great, practical insight social and knowledge of limitations in their local contexts. When questioned if they could travel back home and implement their refined ideas and new tools in their respective organisations, most argued that they would have to pass a director. A director who may not know what they would be talking about and who may not want to admit it.
To me that is the most interesting lesson, and also symptomatic.
Not just the rules, but the game changes
Which is why Obbo's suggestion caught my attention: 'If the people stay at home and boycott the president’s rally, they can be rounded up from their homes and forced to attend. But if they come to the rally and refuse to smile, surely the soldiers can’t force their mouths open.' Or: 'Even a cold shoulder, is never wasted on a dictator.'
Obviously social media is presently only for a tiny percentage of the Tanzanian population who have access to electricity and Internet. It is unlikely to take over conventional media any time soon. But globally a trend is set, which allows the ordinary (and not so ordinary citizens) to communicate with a person up high in the hierarchy - often people who aren't used to being challenged or being asked questions.
It makes those who decide not to ask, listen or answer, vulnerable. The people up high in the hierarchy who engage and who dare ask for honest, second opinions will, however, stick out. Not just on social media, also in real life.
And it should be the way to go. Social media may be ignored by the big men, but they shouldn't underestimate the dynamics and the psychology it is driven by.
Beth Noveck, former Deputy Chief Technology Officer and head of Obama's White House Open Government Initiative, recently explained to the Danish daily 'Information' that 'world leaders are realizing that telling their own story is not sufficient. They have to engage in an ongoing dialogue where different voices that have previously struggled to be heard, now plays an active role which will not just change the rules, but the game itself.'
Please note that illustrations are from Twitter (which is open to all) and Facebook (where I have made the illustration anonymous).