Just as it has for many people across the world, social media has become a lifestyle for many Ugandans. The Uganda Communications Commission in 2014 estimated that there were 8.5 million Internet users in the country of over 37 million people by June 2014. Most of these Internet users use one or two social media platforms and mostly access Internet from their mobile devices. There are almost 20 million telecom subscribers.
To discuss the impact of social media in Uganda, Global Voices caught up with Collin Asiimwe, a Ugandan blogger who is “Changing the world with thoughtful abandon”.
Prudence Nyamishana (PN): How has social media impacted Uganda?
Collin Asiimwe (CA): Social media has remodelled the news cycle. In the past, social media used to pick news from the mainstream media, but now the tables have turned, mainstream media picks news from social media. Netizens break news that will be a headline of a newspaper the following day. Secondly, an argument has been fronted that only 1.5 million people in Uganda use social media and therefore it can never make a contribution to social change, this is a misconception. Although 90% of the population in Ugandan in rural areas use radios, most of the information that is shared by the presenters on these radios is driven by the social media vibe. As long as the presenters are using social media, the trickle down effect of social media cannot be undermined. In the past, information got diffused along the way leaving those in rural areas without correct information, but now even those in rural areas receive the information instantly. Social media has opened up institutions and more voices are now heard. Then we cannot ignore the efforts of 40 Days Over 40 Smiles, a youth-led initiative that uses social media for social justice.
PN: How far do you think social media can go in creating impact in Uganda?
CA: Social media has the potential to make the government of Uganda more transparent and accountable to the citizens; open governments are good because they give liberty and freedom to people to manage and access public information and open spaces for civic engagement.
PN: Often Ugandan social media is accused of being full of trivia. What is your take on this?
CA: Trivia is essential because it attracts people because sometimes the timeline is stale but when certain hashtags like #askaTweepTuesday shows up and all that it bears is trivia, on the onset it looks detrimental but yet it gives life to the timeline such that tomorrow when there is a serious issue there will be a critical mass to join the cause.
PN: What do you think about the recent arrest of Robert Shaka over Facebook comments?
CA: Shaka was definitely the wrong man, because even when he was in jail, TVO [politically-charged Facebook user the government claims to be Robert Shaka] was as vibrant as ever on his Facebook page and that was embarrassing for the Ugandan police. I am sad that the government should even think about cracking down people that are exercising their basic freedoms of expression.
PN: What challenges does social media face in Uganda?
CA: I think the biggest challenge is that the government of Uganda does not have a plan to transform information technology; there is no digital strategy approach for critical sectors; no commerce strategy, no digital strategy for the education sector for example or even health. It beats my understanding when I sometimes visit the IT ministry website and it is down. I don’t get it. Our government discourages innovation, when the government hears of an innovation, the first thing they do is to tax the service as happened with the mobile money service. There is no support or funding for young innovators who usually guys do not need a lot of money to do their work. Sadly, lots of dreams in Uganda die because there is no one interested in funding these innovative minds. In a nutshell, the government of Uganda is clearly not equipped to face the digital revolution.
PN: How can Ugandans overcome these barriers?
CA: The road is steep but it is manageable. First, we have to address the literacy question. People must not be afraid to write in their local languages just like it is in Tanzania. Radio and TV cannot afford to be the only option available for news, education and information for people at the grass-root especially that almost every Ugandan owns a phone. Access is a challenge; access to smart phones but also Internet access is very expensive. But also when it comes to online content, bloggers are not generating specialised content. Bloggers need to discover their niche. We need food bloggers, fashion bloggers, etc. Electricity in rural areas is a barrier, for instance a farmer in a village gets weary of the trips to town to get his phone charged. We know that a more connected society is a more informed society.
PN: Ugandan bloggers have been silent on the plight of Zone9 bloggers. Why is this?
CA: Zone 9? Oh the guys in Ethiopia. There must be someone to mobilize. There is need for bloggers to indulge in cohesive industry action something that has died away since Blog Spirit meetings a few years ago organised by Node Six [Ugandan internet solution provider]. Storipot is aggregating information and that should be the starting point. This is a thought worth considering.
PN: 2016 is an election year in Uganda, what role do you think social media will play?
CA: From what we have seen so far, social media is going to play a very crucial role. Whilst people in the villages have already made up their minds on who they are going to elect, there is new constituency and anyone that ignores it will ignore it at their own peril and that is social media. The people that will decide the upcoming election are the youth. So if you want to get the youth, find them on social media. So the contenders of the election must utilize this new constituency. Whoever brings that element into play, will be the person creating the edge and will control the conversation. Whereas social media might not guarantee victory, one that ignores social media will be in great trouble because, undoubtedly, social media voices will count.
PN: What is the future of social media in Uganda?
CA: This is very hard to predict but in the next five years everything will be disrupted, crowd funding, remittance, and there will be a general yearning and increase in smart living. I predict a critical mass that advocates for innovation. I really hope that social media will have opened up government to be more accountable and responsible.
PN: Do you have any last words for our readers?
CA: Everyone has a part to play, as individuals what we can do is to inspire a critical mass in what we post and share on a daily basis to hold government accountable, those that can innovate should do so. We need people who are going to bring about sustainable transformation in our country, people that frame issues so netizens must find their space in that conversation.