Social media is no longer child's play

This newspaper has always stood for freedom of speech. 

Numerous close calls, abuse, hate and even days in court have tested the mettle of this newspaper and all under its umbrella. 

We have always stood up for the vulnerable and the voiceless – in the fight against corruption and abuse of power across all facets of our society. 

For the most part, that fight falls naturally against those who lead our country and who hold the most power. After more than 40 years of this, we have seen many come and go, and seen many new fads come in and fade out.

In recent years, we have seen that the voiceless are finding their own voices. While we still have our work cut out for us in uncovering and shedding light on dodgy dealings and illegal activities, it’s quite obvious now that a lot of people are using social media platforms to share their views. 

So when word of a possible ban of certain social media platforms (namely Facebook) came through, we were concerned for this country and concerned for her people. 

For some, it may be easy to dismiss social media as child’s play but the power it wields has proven to be government-changing. 

Social media has become the only true platform for free speech in our communities. 

In challenging times such as during elections, being able to speak one’s mind and share one’s views is a privilege afforded to citizens of a true democracy. 

Shutting down Facebook would place Samoa in the same dishonourable company of countries with less than impressive records on free speech such as China, Iran, Syria and North Korea.  

With less than two weeks remaining before this country heads to the polls for a second round of elections this year, both parties have been ramping up their online activities by engaging in virtual tit-for-tats that have raised the temperature in this election hellhole we’ve found ourselves in.

In fact, almost all campaigning is being conducted on social media. That is because it’s the fastest and easiest way to spread information. Our Government has been using social media for years now to share their news and spread their messages. 

Businesses and communities have been engaging online as well; as a natural progression from traditional media and face-to-face interactions. After all, what is social media if not amped up word-of-mouth?

So it came as a surprise to most when the old coconut wireless began to buzz about a possible Facebook ban before the second election.

This newspaper took it upon ourselves to get to the bottom of it, and since only the Government has the power to enact such restrictive measures – we started asking questions. 

Surprisingly, the Prime Minister agreed to an interview with a reporter from this newspaper and the front page of the Sunday Samoan (“Tuilaepa, H.R.P.P.’s Facebook ban clash”) details Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi’s comments on a possible ban of the popular social media site. 

“Attacks are coming from the HRPP supporters as well as those that do not support us,” said Tuilaepa.

“These are unfounded allegations which have had an impact on the people. And these unfounded allegations will have a bearing on the decision-making on the public’s decision-making.”

There is merit to what Tuilaepa is saying, but his concern is most definitely illusory. 

You see he has been exploiting the power of the media for years through his weekly radio interviews where he speaks as if he’s “under the breadfruit tree”. Through his weekly, carefully vetted interviews with approved media, he has been able to propagandize on behalf of Government. He has also used his platform to denigrate and make a laughing stock of so many who have stood against him or showed any opposition to his wishes. 

So to now suggest that social media is the harbinger of evil and misinformation, whilst distancing yourself from the harm and misinformation you have spread with your own words, is laughable and highly objectionable. 

Essentially, what Tuilaepa is saying is that what is good for the geese is not good for the gander. 

The Government has utilized social media, especially Facebook, for several years to share their information. 

Many Government agencies have used social media to their benefit. 

The Office of the Electoral Commission’s use of social media during the first general election was widely praised in their efforts to be seen as transparent and independent. In fact, the Commissioner even spoke proudly of the O.E.C. partnership with Facebook that enabled the removal of political posts during the campaign blackout period as well as the removal of any posts with false information. 

Even their decision (now before the court) to activate Article 44(1a) of the Constitution, resulting in a 6th woman member of Parliament, was announced on their Facebook page. 

“OEC utilises social media, traditional and online media tor release pertinent information relating to the election to ensure that members of the public receive information in a timely manner. Information is released on social media as they become available. This has been the practice of the OEC since 2014,” reads a statement on the OEC Facebook page, dated 27 April.

Last month, the Commissioner himself said the partnership with the global social media platform would go a long way towards ensuring the integrity of elections. 

He said there had been discussions surrounding a block on Facebook during the election period, but there was legal advice about that option being unconstitutional.

So where has that advice gone now, with the Prime Minister and his team of caretaker Government leaders, sending out mixed signals about a possible ban?

After all that has taken place in the last 3-4 weeks, it’s almost comical to think that the Government would refrain from banning Facebook because it’s unconstitutional.

If Facebook is banned, even if only for a day, where does that place this government on the scales of transparency and accountability?

But even the banning seems to be a contested topic within the H.R.P.P. and Government circles, with the party themselves issuing a social media post confirming that there would be no Facebook ban and attributing such rumours to “fake news”. This came several hours after the Prime Minister suggested that it could happen. 

The Government has even gone so far as to consult with local Telcos as to their opinions on a possible ban.

“It is the normal process, the networking companies meet up with the Regulator on such matters, but they were informed and were asked to give their opinion on the matter,” said Tuilaepa.

“And now you know we haven’t finalized the decision, and if [the Government moves to shut down] it is only temporary, but it won’t be permanent.”

As in most aspects of these elections, the legality of such a decision is unclear. In fact, the Government’s top legal minds at the Attorney-General’s Office advised against such a move.

In a memo from the A.G.’s Office, they make clear that “the difficulty in imposing a ban on [Facebook] (i.e. blocking the site) is overcoming the potentially significant community disagreement to such [a ban]; given the potential that such measure impinges on constitutional rights.

“These include freedom of expression/speech; media freedom and general principles of democracy (which attracts international obligations).”

We can all agree that harmful and defamatory social media content has no place in serious political discussions and deliberations. But to take a sweeping broadsword to all, in what appears to be an effort to cut down on the criticisms leveled against the H.R.P.P. and the caretaker Government, is just plain wrong.

Facebook seems to be demonized here, which according to official estimates attracts about 100,000 active users in the country, but what about other platforms or applications? Cracking down on one will likely push users to other sites. Will a ban then extend across multiple platforms? 

Perhaps the H.R.P.P. are becoming savvy to the social media campaigns that have been run by their opponents at Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi, but instead of playing along, they are acting the bully by threatening to take away all the toys because they can’t play with others. 

The world is going digital. This is already the case for much of the developed countries, but for developing countries like Samoa – it’s still a slow process.

How will any government manage in the future, if at every rough patch they decide to ban social media? If a digital economy is the future of Samoa, then dealing with the cons is an unavoidable reality that comes with going online. 

Take the criticisms like the tough politicians you are, and let the people decide who they believe and who they want in power. 

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