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Opportunities and Challenges for social media in Somalia

by Liban Obsiye & Adan Salad
Friday, September 20, 2019

Somali politics has always been top-down and governed by a very few elite who were given the privilege of power and governance by clan or by the military under the Said Barre regime before the Somali state collapsed. Somali history or what is known of it publicly, is centered on men and their decisions and seldom on factual events. Somalia's oral tradition favored poetry and is full of stories of a few people and events. After the independence in 1960 all the way to the failure of the Somali state in 1991 most of the media that existed was state owned and managed, and, again, celebrated the stories and actions of a selected few elites and the issues and events they determined to be Important for the public. This was the error of "Guul wadeyn" or praising the State leadership. After the civil war came the rise of the violent period of clan-based propaganda radio stations which was slowly followed by the expansion of the online news platforms and then, finally, the private owned television era. All these media developments were technologically progressive but in terms of content, editorial controls and target audience engagement controlled by a few elites with money and political influence. Often, both owners and those with political interests were the same and, on occasions, they worked together to fulfill their individual agendas. In any case, the required access to influence and make change in Somalia was far from the ordinary people's hands. Through this whole period the Somali people were victims of unbalanced narratives which they were force fed because they had absolutely no means of influencing the stories and other means to present their actual realities and alternative ideas. 


Today, the Somali media landscape has been revolutionized by the power of social media and mass access to the internet. No longer do a few privileged elite have editorial dominance of the powerful narratives that shape public debates and determine national and international agendas. With the rise in the use of social media, Somalis have begun to participate in the political and socio-economic discussions as analysts, citizen Journalists and experts without the need for institutional mediators and controllers like in the past. No more is the news just one way like the evening news most Somalis grew up listening to on the BBC World Service Radio presented from London, UK. Global news is breaking faster than can be reported today and social media is playing a key role in keeping people informed, educated and entertained in Somalia like everywhere else.


There is no doubt that the power of social media globally has redefined the balance of power between the media owners and the audience because now anyone can set the agenda anywhere and anytime. Social media has opened up new space for direct engagement between the governed and those that govern them either democratically or otherwise. Citizens are now also Netizens. Where once getting information to people required great effort and physical organisation, today entire social and political movements with international impact like #MeToo and the Arab Spring were created and sustained by Twitter HashTags and Facebook messages, pictures and videos. It is clear from this that social media has given the public an opportunity to both be audiences and content creators and this has finally made them understand their true value globally as consumers and producers of media. Many social media users are now challenging what they are been fed by the established media and elites with their own views, thoughts and counter proposals to the extent that policy making in even established democracies has become more engaging and participatory. The public can no longer be misled and divided by choreographed institutional narratives aimed at persuading them to favour or accept what they otherwise would not. 


In Somalia, like most other places in the world, policymakers can also benefit from expanded public participation in the policy process and decision-making by engaging, learning and acting more transparently and strategically to have more impact on the Somali people's lives through the use of social media in conjunction with the traditional media they are more comfortable with. This would lead to real media democratization and this is likely to increase inclusive politics and strengthen good governance in Somalia.


There's no doubt that social media has had a huge impact on the political landscape of Somalia because it has given a voice and platform to citizens, activists and journalists who can speak truth to power with simple tweets, Facebook messages and Instagram pictures. What is unique about social media in the Somali context is that it has allowed for interest groups and networks, much like pressure groups or professional organizations, to connect, organize, mobilize and engage the relevant authorities on their policy priorities without ever physically meeting. This is important because of the existing security challenges and poor infrastructure has cut people off and keeps them apart. Social media has also created a space to trade online for entrepreneurs who otherwise could not afford the rent of physical shops and offices. Social media has connected the Somali people both at home and abroad in key humanitarian and political campaigns which have had real impact.


Great examples of these is how social media facilitated a global Somali led campaigns to avert the drought in 2017 in the country and raise awareness and lobby for better security in the aftermath of the disastrous Zoobe terrorist attack in Mogadishu. These social media platforms enabled efforts have demonstrated that they are important tools for empowerment, connectivity, inclusion and progress. Active citizenship has been revived by social media in Somalia.


Somalia is ranked as the least transparent country by many good governance indicators but social media activism and pressure is creating a more responsive government which is promoting accountability and transparency. This is because there is now a genuine need to protect individual and institutional reputations as they develop and increase in capacity. The Somali government is also on continuous trial and living in the public eye with greater scrutiny than ever before thanks to faster news cycles, social media and a technologically savvy and connected citizenry.


Social media is a great cost free instrument for communications but users shouldn't forget the key principles of effective communications and media ethics when using it. When using social media, those producing content or engaging with others must be clear in their messaging, understand their target audience and be able to use the basic tools available to them to evaluate impact. In Somalia there is a desperate need for an enforceable Media Law and regulations which balances the right to freedom of expression against the protection of privacy and dignity of individuals and organizations who are targeted on social media. On social media there is too much slander, defamation and fake news which is not addressed legally or politically by the Somali government, courts and the many media and journalistic bodies that exist. The real challenge for Somali policymakers, social media users, journalists and media professionals is how to protect the integrity and quality of content and news features. The reporting of abuse and breaches of codes of conduct to the social media platform administrators is not enough and must be complemented by national laws and regulations to protect basic human rights. There must also be more opportunities for ethics and professional standards training for all social media users both individuals and institutions and, again, the national government, media organizations and the owners of social media, including Twitter and Facebook should work together to promote fair use and the prevention of slander, defamation and general abuse and fake news.


In Somalia, like everywhere else, social media is revolutionizing public life, re-energizing private enterprise and breaking established power structures which gave voice, opportunities and influence to a select few in the past. There are clearly many great opportunities and challenges for social media in Somalia which both citizens and government can benefit from in this age of globalization and digital connectivity. However, for social media to really impact on Somalia's socio-economic and political progress, its use must be better governed.

The authors welcome feedback and comments and can be reached through:

@LibanObsiye (Twitter)


Adan Salad is Communications and Outreach Specialist:

@Suheyfa (Twitter)