A Voice for the Voiceless (but download Facebook Messenger first)
Published August 2016 on Medium
Behold, ye huddled, downtrodden masses, for Facebook is here to save you from the tyranny of your analogue lives. Sitting astride its noble blue steed, blazing in the dazzling light of a thousand servers, here to deliver the big F to you and everyone you know.
‘You’, in this case is Africa, the last great holdout of our digital generation. Facebook is one of a few big tech companies leading the charge for the hearts, minds and smartphones of the last green field of new users (Shealaw, 2016). Precisely how humanitarian these endeavours are is still the subject of fierce debate; Zuckerberg and his ilk are by turns cast as the chivalric heralds of the digital age, or conquering capitalist overlords bringing with them opiates the likes of which would make Aldous Huxley spin like a rotisserie chicken in his grave.
Regardless of their intention, the entrance of these tech heavyweights into Africa’s nascent digital ecosystem has serious repercussions for the continent’s inhabitants. Facebook, for its part, seeks to fill the void ordinarily occupied by government infrastructure and has partnered with local telcos to deliver selected services — including, of course, its own — on data-free plans to subscribers (Jackson, 2015, p. 52).
Facebook's Garden of Eden™
We’ve grown up expecting — and have lately relentlessly campaigned for — a free and open internet. But African users, in having their service provided entirely by established corporate megaliths, have been catapulted towards a digital walled garden. Worse, they will see this garden as normal. It’s like introducing hamburgers to someone by giving them McDonalds, never having explained that there is life beyond the Big Mac, that you can make the damn things yourself, better, from scratch. One is tempted to invoke Captain Picard to deliver a masterful soliloquy on the virtues of the Prime Directive.
The net neutrality implications of this move have been discussed at length before, but I’d prefer to examine it from the perspective of platform imperialism. This concept identifies the subtle ways that platforms — in this case, social media platforms — influence our ways of speaking and enforce the cultural hegemony of its creators. Whether they acknowledge it or not, Facebook and other communications platforms are built by people who prioritise certain values, modes of speech and information above others. Facebook becoming the dominant means by which African users are able to digitally connect with each other means that the way in which these users communicate and view the outside world is warped by the people who made that platform. In the same way that verbal and written language reflects the values of those who create and use it, so too do these social media platforms enforce the cultural values of their creators through subtle linguistic and user-interface constructs (Gittinger, 2014, p. 512).
This notion of platform imperialism becomes especially problematic when you consider its role as a vehicle for enabling and reporting civil protest within and beyond national borders. As social media matures into its role as a 5th estate, these battles for public freedom and democracy are increasingly conducted online (Joseph, 2012, p. 159). But what happens when the battlefield itself can switch allegiances? The platform imperialism inherent in social media means that these civil rights protesters have to constantly moderate their message to find support in fickle Western audiences (Joseph, p. 152). More worrying though, engaging via social media platforms means that their message may well become diluted, modified or compromised by the medium itself. It’s like trying to compose a stirring speech on the virtues of freedom and human nobility, but having to deliver it in Orwellian Newspeak.
A Voice of Their Own, Made from Ours
We need to consider the impact this subtle cultural imposition will have on Africa’s fledgling digital community. We as denizens internet — disparate and divided though we are — should decide if we really value individuality and freedom as much as we claim to.
It’s impractical to step back and allow Africa to re-invent the wheel of the internet, and risky to position ourselves as a patriarchal guiding hand to Africa’s digital adolescence. But I’d argue it’s riskier still to allow free market capitalism to determine the shape and course of Africa’s online presence.
Many have already rightly criticised first world nations for their interventionist policies in the African continent. The least we can do is provide the people of Africa’s many countries a voice of their own, unclouded by our own cultural biases. Because if we rely on Facebook to illuminate Africa in the dazzling light of the information age, we may well find it less a noble paladin and more a Spanish Conquistador.
Gittinger, J., 2014. Is there such a thing as ‘cyberimperialism’?. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 28(4), pp. 509–514.
Jackson, T., 2015. Facebook sparks net neutrality battle. African Business, March, 49(417), pp. 52–55.
Jin, D. J., 2013. The Construction of Platform Imperialism in the Globalization Era. tripleC, 11(1), pp. 145–172.
Joseph, S., 2012. Social Media, Political Change, and Human Rights. Boston College International & Comparative Law Review, 35(145), pp. 145–188.
Shealaw, M., 2016. Facebook lures Africa with free internet — but what is the hidden cost?. The Guardian, 2 August.