On Sunday the 25th May 2014 I went to bed convinced that a coup was imminent in Malawi. The thought of waking up under a military regime was enough to make me lose some sleep and as the insomnia kicked in, images of civilians fighting the army in Thailand flashed through my eyes. I couldn’t help but recall the famous 1993 “multiparty ndi nkhondo” speech by Foloma Mwale of the Malawi Congress Party. He did warn us.

What’s happening to our young democracy? I asked myself. Where exactly did we go wrong? Would the junta tolerate protests? Curfews! So many things went through my head that my nervous, digestive and excretory systems were on the verge of a meltdown. All this thanks to social media.

Earlier on I had seen on Facebook several posts claiming that General Henry Odillo of the Malawi Defence Forces was going to take control of Malawi. These posts carried a lot of weight because they were made by people that we respect, Malawians that speak for the voiceless. I mean, why would these well reputed men post such a stories if they weren’t sure that indeed the military was taking over? Would these heroes intentionally stir up unrest? Needless to say I woke up today and managed to go on about my day normally (while reading new ‘breaking’ news). No tanks or soldiers giving orders on the streets. This is just one isolated case but similar messages are being forwarded on WhatsApp, BBM, Viber and other platforms. Rumours from people who claim to have ‘inside’ sources have always been going round on social media but they seem to have peaked during the recent tripartite elections.

Social media is a great way to keep up with current affairs and stay connected to friends and relatives almost anywhere in the world. It gives us a quick and easy access to updates and the ability to communicate with lots of people at one time. Even major news networks like CNN and BBC get some of their stories on social media. One huge advantage social media has over traditional channels is the speed at which news spread. A story can go viral in a matter of minutes. It is a powerful tool and has the ability to influence public opinion.

And from my observation, I can confidently say that most of Malawians and the rest of the world are currently relying on the internet to get updates of the Malawi’s 2014 tripartite elections with Zodiak Online being one of the popular among many.  The good thing is that these days almost all major Malawian media houses have an online presence i.e. Twitter, Facebook and a website (which are the most common amongst Malawian users). Access to information is a click away. I keep on refreshing my feed every minute so that I shouldn’t miss the next injunction granted or a new twist to the saga.

The late Dr. Bingu Wa Mutharika once said that Malawi is country ruled by injunctions, it seems like he wasn’t too far from the truth after all, because chances are; another injunction would have been issued before this article gets posted. However, there seems to be a public misconception that the internet is somehow a free speech zone to which the laws do not apply. Malawians are excited with the internet, especially social media what with the proliferation of affordable smart phones/ tablets and this has been compounded by the election impasse. People are just posting anything they want, both true and false, creating panic and confusion and in the process inadvertently breaking the law. For instance, someone just wakes up and decides to create a Facebook account in someone else’s name and start spewing hate. Some actually have accounts under pseudonyms (zigoba) they use to spread propaganda and misinformation. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the famous ‘Wamtali Savala Gogoda’ does not exist. There are so many parody accounts on Facebook that it is difficult if not outright impossible to tell which one belongs to the real person.

Joyce-Banda-Malawi

Honorable Atupele Muluzi and Her Excellency Dr. Joyce Banda had to distance themselves from fake Facebook accounts in 2013. And Facebook users do not have the monopoly on this; there are also a lot of Twitter parody accounts that’s intended for the same damage. People post stuff on the internet in the belief that they will not be prosecuted for breaching legal rules. Little do they know that a court order can make Facebook or Twitter give up someone’s IP address and tie them to a specific account (in the case of fake names). A simple Google search will show you just how easily traceable you are in the digital world.

Let us not let our emotions take over and create unnecessary unrest. This has to be nipped in the bud to make sure sanity prevails in our great nation. Surely we should not wait for a government sanctioned civic education campaign to tell us that freedom of speech comes with a good measure of responsibility. Let’s try our best not to be making and/ or forwarding unverified, provocative and inflammatory pieces no matter how irresistible it may be. At the end of the day we cannot all be reporters. Everyone has their interests but what we need to remember is that Malawi comes first and despite our political differences, TOGETHER WE CAN BUILD A BETTER MALAWI.

Source: http://watsupmalawi.com/malawi-army-taking-over-online-panic/

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