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Sunday, 5 October 2014

IS THERE HOPE FOR AFRICA’S VULNERABLE DIGITAL CITIZENS?





A few weeks ago I started investigating about the use of mass media in manipulating the tastes and perceptions of children.

This came right off the back of me delving into the power of propaganda and how the Third Reich indoctrinated German children to loath and hate Jews, and progressively take part innocently in their annihilation.The manner in which this was done begins with innocent symbolism and ends with psychological manipulation to achieve an evil objective.   

I wanted to find out how in the same vain social behavior in Africa can be manipulated today using the Internet to achieve the whims of organized institutions that have the resources to do so. 

Africa has the youngest population in the world. More than 50% of its population is below 20 years. More than ever before this age group is more educated and knows how to search for information online. 
It is telling when the most respected brands in Africa are MTN, Nokia, Coca-Cola and Samsung. In these brands you find the aspirations and the behavior of the continent, tied to more than 635million mobile subscribers.

Source: thebftonline.com african-youth
Youth unemployment is a big problem in Africa and it is potentially destabilizing in a continent where power is concentrated in the hands of a few extractive institutions.

Extractive institutions desire control to be placed in the hands of a few. Internet access on the other hand through affordable mobile phones and connectivity, is disruptive and defeats censorship. It transfers certain instruments of power to the masses.

In Africa most censorship is done on print, radio and television with these forms of media being directly controlled or monitored by the government of the day.  Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea and North Sudan are extreme cases, with Eritrea being termed as the least connected country in the world today.

If I look at the Internet; sidestep the political disruption, innovation and creativity that it brings and focus on oversight. The question in my mind is what oversight is in place to monitor different vested individuals, groups, multinationals and foreign governments that are competing for the attention of this malleable age group in Africa.

Fact: African countries either lack the technical capability or sensibility to consider this an issue.

Don't get me wrong there is merit in stating that mobile phones and Internet access can transform how we advance as a continent that has the least developed basic infrastructure in terms of roads, power and sanitation. The potential is astounding; from how we apply what we learn on a daily basis, to how millions of innovative, intelligent Africans are becoming a force to recon with in any global conversation. 
A number of times Kenyans On Twitter  #KOT (and there are more than 23 million Kenyans on the internet) have made American media personalities recant and apologize for their uninformed statements.

But after all is said and done, what vexes me is the negative and harmful online activity that African countries are ill equipped to tackle or combat against.

They include bullying and harassment, identity theft and online abuse (such as children seeing harmful and illegal content, or being exposed to grooming for sexual purposes or the production, distribution and collection of child abuse material).  

Not to be ignored also is the addictive nature of the Internet. When a child (any person below 18) discovers that there is nothing in the physical world to hold their attention or inspire them to be part of an inclusive system. And they choose to develop a preoccupation with the Internet as a means to escape a mundane and boring life.


Learning in to use laptops

What this opens up is a Pandora’s box where ideological manipulation can also take shape. It should not shock anyone that the brand of terrorism sponsored by Al-Qaida is spreading around the world at the speed of the Internet. It is not wrong to state that most of the young people in Africa are disillusioned, in need of a sense of purpose and want to belong to a community. If they don't get this from the societies they live in they will be open to the simplicity of the Al-Qaida message and the popularity of its brand in this Technicolor stage where “David” fights “Goliath” in unconventional warfare.

What we also need to realize is that the multinationals of this world have realized that Africa is no longer a ‘dark ‘continent. The potentiality of it being a market for goods and services is now old news. If you doubt this kindly read this McKinsey report .

Is Africa open to being manipulated by international brands? The answer is potentially yes. Coca-Cola has done a wonderful job in aligning itself with a vibrant advancing Africa, and this touches on our collective psyche, as most of us believe that the future is bright for our continent.

Man uses tablet in AfricaCom, Africa largest ICT conference
Whether an advert is presented to us subliminally in the movies that we pirate across the continent, or persistently during prime time news. We are part of the international set of eyes that are now recipients of marketing strategies set around the world to sell products.

The result of such manipulative advertising is an inherent desire to acquire things. You name it; from shoes to the clothes we see our favorite footballer endorsing we are invariably being primed to buy. Consumerism is on the prowl.

I believe there is need to have strong consumer protection legislation in most African countries, which is geared towards protecting our children. The legislation should be maintained and sustained devoid of corrupt practices. Outright manipulation by multinationals should be frowned upon and penalized. There is a broad range of activity happening across Africa to this end.
 
There is a lot that still needs to be done by public and private institutions, individuals and groups in Africa to protect our children while they are online. The African Child Online Protection is one such initiative that seeks to tackle children online security. From their website one is able to appreciate relevant guidelines that can be adopted by different stakeholders including parents, educators, industry and policy makers. My hope is that we become sensitive to the needs of these vulnerable digital citizens.





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