My friend, let’s call him Banga, is adamant that he has to go back to school. Why? At what age? I had asked him, knowing that he would soon be 70. He sat me down and gave me a long explanation. Let me give you a summary of our discussion.
The main reason that Banga wants new knowledge is social media or digital social networking technology. Yes, the new world of social media intrigues and confuses him. Somewhere, at some special school, he reasoned, he could find answers.
Banga is not new to communication. It was his life-long career. Indeed, he had been at the forefront of experts who defined the new paths for mass media, online and virtual communication which is how social media originated. He used to make definitive pronouncements to academics and professionals on traditional media, new media, and alternative media. He had used terms like artificial intelligence, fake news, deep fake and fact-checking before they became more mainstream language.
Yet he said that he has been dumbfounded by the implications of social media and the effects it can have on society and normal people. He said that his five human senses make no sense to him any longer. Intuitively, after many decades of dealing with theories and practices of communication, he could see, hear, touch, smell and almost taste the facts in what was presented to him. He could read, see or hear the information, and without hesitation, he could decipher the main points, separate the embellishments and throw out the untruths.
Now, there are more questions than answers in what he reads, hears or views mainly on social media. In the new clime, a video that is shot by just anybody can pass on as information, when it is a tool of disinformation or misinformation. Banga would be the first to admit that social media serves as a veritable tool to achieve many useful purposes and that it has many good uses. However, the negative uses seem to be climbing higher.
He met with Julius, his very good friend, in Johannesburg late last year for lunch and usual beers. Banga lost his appetite during lunch and left the place dejected because Julius insisted that the then President of Nigeria, Mohammadu Buhari, died a long time ago. The person who was serving as President Buhari was a look-alike who came from Sudan, Julius insisted, adding that he had much evidence from social media to confirm it. My friend was angry that anyone would believe such a fallacy, least of all a normal, educated and reasoning person like Julius. The lunch became a heated argument between Banga and Julius on who was crazy, stupid or both, and the friendship was only saved when they agreed to shake hands anyway and parted.
My friend’s sister called him a few years ago and wept on the phone because Microsoft owner Bill Gates was going around Africa selling syringes that contained HIV to make sure that HIV and AIDS killed millions of Africans as COVID did not do a “good” job in the continent. During the call, my friend laughed his sister’s story off and merrily retorted that it was incorrect and that it could not even happen because the virus would not live that long in such a device. His unhappy sister, thoroughly displeased that Banga made a joke of the important matter, refused to speak with him for weeks afterwards. Other family members also took sides with his sister or him. A family was almost torn apart.
A video which became immensely popular on social media was shown to me by Banga. The video shot in a commercial bank, showed armed robbers who came in, ordered everyone to lie down and took money from the bank and helpless customers. Just as the robbers were about to get out of the bank, a young girl stood up, stretched her two arms, and ordered the robbers to put the money down and start jumping around in the bank hall. Everyone there at the bank watched in amazement as the robbers kept jumping around until the police came and arrested them.
The video was watched by several thousands of people on the usual major social media, and it was still circulating as we spoke. My friend said that he produced the video to test practically the “capability to believe” of social media users. Three weeks after he had noticed the high popularity of his video, he went around asking those who had seen the video whether they believed it. Only four out of 100 respondents said that they wondered how such a video could be made in the turbulence of an armed robbery incident at a bank. All other viewers believed what they saw and admired the young heroine who overcame the robbers with her powers, whatever they were. My friend was alarmed that people would unquestionably believe the scenes in his video.
Having given up on common sense, Banga wanted to re-educate himself. Social media is increasingly becoming more popular worldwide. About half of the global population of eight billion are on social media, mainly using the big ones. Banga told me that his mind told him that he risked losing his family ties, alienating those close to him and in vain seeking long explanations, if he did not grasp the power of social media as the strongest popular communication asset, or war equipment.
Whilst waiting to find the right school, Banga doesn’t accept information as factual until he has questioned, checked and attained a reasonable level of satisfaction on the matter. Routinely, he checks three sources for the same information and feels reassured if the facts are the same or at least similar for all sources. During political campaigns, he prefers to watch live broadcasts of events on television rather than rely on the opinions of “experts” and commentators.
Banga has concluded that many people do not know what they do not know and they claim to know. Anybody with a smartphone can claim expertise in areas that they do not know anything about. After all, they saw it on social media. They can rebroadcast fiction as facts and get millions of people to consume and accept the information.
Many people are happy to have some unknown person on social media confirm their hopes, beliefs and wishes. May facts rest in peace and who cares?
Above all, my friend says, knowledge used to be the basis for power, but gradually social media is replacing knowledge as the platform for power, with its strength as a democratic media yet a veritable tool for spreading misinformation and bias.
Bunmi Makinwa is the CEO of AUNIQUEI Communication for Leadership.
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