Social media has become a sideshow from real problems

must confess I am not social media savvy. I know little about its full functioning.

Over the years, I have maintained a consistent but modest presence on social media, primarily Facebook. From the outset, I made a deliberate choice to shun WhatsApp, for which I have been universally condemned, although I am not sure exactly what I miss.

A few people have admonished me for not replying their WhatsApp messages, never mind I have no WhatsApp account! I have a Twitter account which I rarely use, and I take months to log into my LinkedIn account. I only hear of Instagram, and I bet there must be innumerable others I don’t know about.

The social media bang has been the high point of easily the most important revolution in modern times, the information-technological breakthrough, kick-started by the Internet in the 1970s. This invention is only rivalled by the industrial revolution, 200 years ago, and represents just what human ingenuity is capable of in free environments. 

The power of social media, and the technological revolution more generally, cannot be overstated. From democratising the flow of information and hugely reducing the costs of communication, to connecting communities and uniting diverse social groups, social media has been truly revolutionary.

That much is clear. What is not very apparent is the insidious side of social media, especially the extent to which it facilitates sideshows that drive attention away from real issues.

Consider the buzz last week over remarks attributed to Winnie Byanyima, wife to opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye. Byanyima is no stranger to controversy. She has a knack for stirring up controversy through snide and sometimes cynical comments.

In recent years, she has been a vigorous member of the Ugandan Twitter-club. So, last week she called out the practice of women kneeling to greet or for other social gestures.

Even for a mild user of social media in me, I could feel the roof coming down as guns blazed against Byanyima. For starters, Byanyima’s caustic comments against kneeling, claiming it humiliates women, were totally misguided.

I have been married for eight years, and the woman who became my wife had been my girlfriend for seven years. During this combined 15 years of love and friendship, she has never knelt to greet me.

But she kneels to greet her mother and my mother because she feels obliged to kneel to greet these two (fellow women) who are our parents. If she wanted to kneel to greet me, that would be her choice; that she doesn’t, is of no consequence and hardly ever an issue in our relationship.

For the record, my wife is a Muganda and I am a Mugisu, two ethnic groups whose cultural practices and value systems overlap somewhat except that my in-laws, the Baganda, dread our signature cultural practice of male circumcision.

When she introduced me to her parents as we officially got married, I knelt to request her parents to accept me as their new son. Ordinarily, a Mugisu man does not kneel. Was I humiliated the day I knelt before my in-laws?

Or is my wife humiliated when she kneels to greet my mother?

That Ugandans could spend days arguing whether or not kneeling is a bad thing speaks volumes of just how social media can be utterly diversionary and downright corrosive. Because the mediums are there for easy access and for instant use, we have been driven into frenzies of pettiness and animated but totally unhelpful debates over non-issues.

Our society has enormous social problems. Kneeling is not one of them, nor is it symptomatic of any particularly fundamental problem that we need to confront. Winnie Byanyima, of all people, is well-positioned to know this. How about Byanyima calls out and mobilizes public fury against blatant nepotism that is all over the Ugandan public sector?

The way we relate and communicate shapes the habits we imbibe and the mores we embrace. In this age of social media, we seem to be evolving the knack for jumping to frivolous debates and getting worked up over petty subjects.

By contrast, when issues of substance come to the fore, again social media provides a convenient option of talking much but doing little, if nothing. My experience in the recent years in collective engagements has taught me some hard lessons: talk on social media is cheap and by many, but real public-good work out there is onerous and only for a few.

Unfettered social media space provides the allure for unfocused chattering including insulting without reflecting. In Uganda, the rulers likely see social media as an ally in perpetuating their misrule, never mind its potentially subversive power.

The rulers have previously been quite jittery about the threat of social media, and the man in charge of the communications regulatory authority, Godfrey Mutabazi, with a tsarist mentality, is always on standby. Often, he finds that he lacks the power to effortlessly switch social media off and on. Yet he does not have to. Ugandans on their own do a pretty spectacular job switching off from pertinent issues and digging deep into frivolities.