I have a nagging question regarding the IGP’s apparent determination to shut down social media during Election 2016: Does it mean that he will also get all the independent radio stations to suspend broadcasting during that period?
If the concern of Inspector-General of Police, Mr John Kudalor, is to prevent conflict generated by social media reports, it can also be argued that some of the FM stations pose more of a threat to peace. And after all, how many people in Ghana have access to the Internet, or follow social media, as against the numbers who have access to radio?
The Helpful Book Company’s Dictionary: Computer jargon into Plain English defines ‘Social media’ as: “A broad term to describe the websites and (applications) where people can share content and talk to friends (it includes all social network websites).”
Even when there is irresponsible commentary or news on social media, it is radio stations that spread it. Furthermore, going by recent events, some of the most atrocious views that have shocked the nation have not been expressed on social media but on radio.
It was in May that IGP Mr Kudalor generated a huge furore by stating that, as part of measures to ensure a peaceful general election, the Police were considering blocking social media on Election day. He was quoted by Citi FM then as saying that: “if it becomes critical on the eve and also on the election day, we shall block all social media as other countries have done. We’re thinking about it.
“We are also thinking about the other alternative, that the police should be IT compliant and get our own social media (account) to be able to stop these things on time. We are looking at the variables ….” Mr Kudalor said.
Afterwards, responding to the immediate furious public reaction, the police began to backtrack and gave the impression that the IG had not taken a stand yet, that it was just a speculation.
Yet, just last week the IG reignited the debate when he was reported to have said in Koforidua that: “Social media should be shut down on election day to promote peace and ensure sanity in the general election” (Daily Graphic, July 23). This is particularly disappointing.
Also, the day before, the Ghanaian Times had reported that the police in Ho carried out a mock exercise against the shutting down of social media. It was staged to demonstrate the readiness of the police to deal with any form of lawlessness during the elections.
For the record, I can’t say that I’m a fan of social media. Nevertheless, in the spirit of the free expression principle of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (original quote attributed to historian Evelyn Beatrice Hall), I think the IG should concentrate rather on the “alternative” he himself proposed.
When the Ghana Journalists Association organised a workshop in 2007 on ‘The Role of the media in combating organised crime’ in collaboration with the Police Service (and sponsored by the British High Commission), I recall that many of us were highly impressed by the proficiency displayed by the Information Technology specialists from the Police Service.
The impression we were given was that IT competence was a skill taken seriously by the police in their fight against Information and Communications Technology crime.
So how come in 2016, the response of the police to a potential threat of social media activists is not a strategy to match them squarely, but rather a shutdown?
Of course on voting day any wrong information via social media, or any other means, could spark conflict. However, equally, social media could also be used positively, to provide explanations or put out swiftly any ‘fire’ generated by misinformation or malice.
My suggestion is that the Service should establish a social media site which people can access for accurate information that counters potentially dangerous messages or rumours. I have in mind a ‘rumour control office’ staffed by the police and experts in various fields, providing reliable information online or by telephone.
And I think it should be a sustained facility not just for Election 2016, operating day and night.
I first heard of a rumour control policy many years ago while on an official visit to the USA, when we were taken to the ‘Los Angeles Rumor Control Center’, established following ferocious race riots caused by rumours. In the light of the concerns about people using social media to spread wrong messages and incite people to lawlessness, maybe Ghana needs a centre like that.
The Ghana Police have been working hard to earn the trust of the general public. However, the Ho mock exercise seems to indicate that the IGP is determined to carry out his plan, despite the widespread condemnation and protests.
Mr Kudalor may mean well, but the danger is that any clamping down on freedom of expression in the election period, a time of heightened suspicion, might be interpreted as an attempt to interfere with the outcome of the general election. And that might produce precisely the consequences we all want to avoid – especially the police.
Why can’t the police develop an information counter-attack strategy against any social media threat by beefing up their IT department?
Otherwise, they might as well shut down private radio stations that day – and telephony, too, to prevent the use of phones. But for how long? Even if social media should be suspended on December 7, what will happen when the ban is eventually lifted?
Moreover, the experience is that information which is suppressed always finds an outlet, usually as fabrications. Speedy, more reliable information should be the response to the social media menace.
Again, in line with the Police Service’s campaign to gain the trust of the public, as an “alternative”, providing immediate and neutral information to quash malicious social media content is the way to go, to maintain peace.
And for a start, the police could establish, early, an online and a telephone-access Election 2016 Rumour Control Centre, or similar office, to counter any mischief, whether by social media, radio or through word-of-mouth.