The media as a tool for mass communication has evolved over the years leading to the emergence of more stylish mechanisms for communication often referred to as ‘social media’ These social media platforms have succeeded in serving as a tool for exchange of ideas, promoting businesses, research, entertainment, among others.
Particularly, over the past five years there has been massive surge in the use of social media with huge benefits for information sharing, mass communication and access to information. In Ghana, just like in most other countries, social media has changed in a very progressive manner, the way people communicate, do business and interact with friends and family.
The use of social media sites such as Facebook and twitter has greatly increased access to timely information and provided a platform for the citizenry to contribute to discussions towards improving governance. Studies have shown that social media platforms have openned up new ways of collaboration and discussion, which include, replicability – the ability for content to be copied and reshared, searchability – the ability to easily find content using online search tools and accessibility – the ability to use social media anywhere and at any time, a very unique feature.
As much as I would like to commend the Ghana Police Service for the steps they are taking to ensure a violent free election this year, 2016, I however disagree with the comments by the Inspector General of Police (IGP) on May 25, 2016 when he said that the Police Service is considering the possibility of shutting down social media platforms during the 2016 general elections.
This is because any ban on the use of social media, will greatly affect mass media communication as a whole at such a crucial time when timely reportage is of essence.
Blocking or restricting access to social media platforms during elections is not a guarantee for a violent free election but rather a recipe for chaos and mistrust because such an action will curtail access to real time information regarding the elections as well as prevent citizens from exchanging views on the progress of the elections and the outcomes.
Furthermore, a social media shutdown is even more risky as citizens can resort to other means to communicate or connect, which authorities may not be able to monitor or immediately intervene. In Uganda for example, reports in the media indicate that during the elections held in February, this year, many Ugandans, despite the ban on social media continued to use the platform through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) — a technology that dodges censorship by redirecting one’s Internet activity to a computer in a different country. This meant that social media communications during the elections could not be monitored or tracked by security agencies
Social media, just like the traditional media can be misused, but when used in the right way through proper monitoring can be extremely beneficial to ensuring peace and security during the elections. In Nigeria for example, during the country’s presidential elections in April 2015, social media played a major role in ensuring a free and fair election. Citizens used social media platforms to report on election related issues in places where traditional media coverage was absent. This helped in minimizing election related violence. This is one of the many advantages that social media can offer in election time.
Just recently, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) partnered with Facebook to provide citizens a platform to interact with political parties with the aim of providing information to the electorates, promote issue based election and enable the electorate make an informed choice on Election Day.
This is a commendable initiative which the Police Service can emulate Rather than block social media, the Police Administration should consider how to take advantage of the many opportunities which social media offers, understand how it works and use it to their advantage during the elections. .
Any attempt to block social media will amount to a violation of citizen’s right to freedom of expression and access to information as guaranteed under the 1992 Constitution of Ghana. Article 21 of the Constitution provides that “All persons shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media”.
Given Ghana’s democratic credentials and rating on the global freedom of expression index, restriction of social media will not only impact negatively on the country’s global freedom of expression ranking but will also tarnish the country’s image as the beacon of democracy in Africa.
I therefore wish to urge the Ghana Police Service, to develop strategies of monitoring activities on these social media platforms so as to deter citizens from abusing such platforms come November 2016 elections.