Last month in Zimbabwe messages of doom spread on WhatsApp, a popular social media application in the country. The messages foretold an imminent shortage of basic goods in the country and in response Zimbabweans rushed in droves to stock up. This led to an artificial and temporary shortage of goods like cooking oil which in turn led to price increases.
That whole debacle was debated around the country with some adamant that it wasn’t just the WhatsApp messages that led to the panic buying. They maintained that it was merely because people were paying attention to the changes happening in the economy. Even if that’s the case, we cannot pretend that WhatsApp did not play a role in accelerating the panic.
State media claimed the messages were fabricated by opposition parties and were meant to destabilise the country. Minister Chinamasa said it was a security matter and that it was political agenda where social media was being used to effect a regime change.
It is with that incident in mind that President Mugabe made the remarks that the abuse of social media was by those seeking to undermine the economy. He was speaking in South Africa on Tuesday, this is what he said,
We have discovered the bitter lesson that there was abuse, unlimited abuse of our cyber technology by those who wanted to undermine our economies and I think together we should look at how we can protect our economies from those who would want to destroy them using ICT technology.
This issue of social media and cyber technology abuse at large has been raised a lot in Africa in the past few months. In Tanzania they recently passed laws to regulate online content and social media. Just how effective those laws will be stands to be seen. Our Leader is not ignorant as to the difficulty of regulating online content, as he spoke to the South Africans he said,
We do not have the means yet and I do not think you have adequate means yet, but I am aware that some of our friends have, let us try to borrow these means and protect our economies from subversion.
Zimbabwe and South Africa did sign five bilateral agreements, one which is in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT.) The hope is that the agreement will lead to greater cooperation between the two countries in fighting cyber-crimes.
The South African minister of Telecommunications had this to say about the steps his country was taking to deal with this nuisance,
Recently, we had discussions at SADC in Durban, where we said there should be cooperation at a bilateral, regional and multilateral level because internet is important we cannot shut internet down but we must protect our citizens. In South Africa, we have what we call a cyber-hub, where we are working very closely with our banking system, because most of the bad guys try to get into the bank accounts.
In light of all this, the question becomes, is there a case for social media regulation? To answer that we first have to ask if there is such a thing as social media abuse and I believe any media can be abused, social media included. So in my humble opinion there is a case for social media regulation.
Is there a risk that the government will itself abuse whatever solution they come up with for social media abuse to suppress freedom of expression on those platforms? Definitely. This is the biggest reason most do not want any regulation of social media, it is not because they don’t think social media should be regulated. There is a bill being worked on in Zimbabwe to regulate online content and it fills most of us with dread.