Online spaces reflect and reinforce the offline communities that populate them. As a result, digitalization both shakes up and amplifies existing conflicts and established social norms.
The arrival of the Internet has both shaken up and reinforced traditional social structures in the eight countries surveyed as part of the #speak up barometer. While it can open up new spaces for marginalized groups, including women, linguistic minorities and rural populations, it can also lead to the amplification of existing conflicts and established social norms. On the positive end of the scale, opportunities are popping up everywhere, as pulse.fm product lead Ibukun Onitiju from Ghana explains. “I think in terms of job creation across society – from education, from policies, from capacity development – there are so many ways that introducing digital platforms; digital as a whole, is radically changing what we know," Onitiju said. For women, there are also new prospects. "I see a lot of female entrepreneurs using social media and the Internet to promote their work and engage in activism as well," said Vivian Affoah of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA). On the political spectrum, a smartphone allows Ugandan citizen-journalist David to create to “a bridge between the voiceless, the public and the authorities,” by sending information from traditional community meetings to the local radio station.
On the negative end, the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine is reflected in Ukrainian online spaces where "bots are the main problem when it comes to destroying trust on the Internet,” according to Olha Yurkova, co-founder of Stopfake. “We are witnessing an atomization of society on the Internet." Similarly, Ariel Barbosa, co-founder of Colnodo, an NGO in Bogotá, Colombia, contends that "because of so many years of violence, people are very aggressive," which explains "why there are also many attacks online, sometimes hidden in anonymity." That anonymity is often a double-edged sword. Pakistani journalist Sabahat Zakariya believes that "the possibility of anonymity in the digital world allows a lot of marginalized people to say what they want to say online. But anonymity can also be a dangerous thing in societies where people need role models for inspiration."
Our experts stress that direct engagement with communities is necessary in order to improve digital participation in society as a whole. Kingsley Obeng-Kyereh, head of Curious Minds in Ghana, argues that "sometimes, we want to do things for young people without their participation, and we don’t succeed if they are not interactively involved. So, bringing them into the media is a way of letting them know that they are partners in their own development." Similarly, Rachel Nakitare from KBC, Kenya’s state-run broadcaster, advocates for a direct engagement with people living in rural areas. “You need to explain to them the value of the Internet. The value needs to outweigh the costs. You need to explain how it is improving their lives,” Nakitare said. For Phyu Phyu Thi, research and development manager at MIDO in Myanmar, the solution lies in greater media and information literacy (MIL) education. "We need continuous learning and awareness raising. In fact, we need to integrate MIL into the education system."
As social norms change and more people gain access both to the Internet and the media and information literacy necessary required to engage and profit from it, it will continue to be necessary to create safe spaces for marginalized communities as well as find new ways to counteract misinformation and hate speech. Precious Ankomah, who works on media innovation at Penplusbytes in Ghana is convinced that “usually the Internet provides a level playing field for everybody – men and women. But the social differences we have in real life are truly manifested on the Internet. It is actually a very dicey situation here because what happens offline is mirrored online.”
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer