Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The solidity of ephemera

Internet rumours should be dismissed outright. Mostly. Quite often, in open democracies, where the State doesn't actively discourage an open press, internet rumours are scoffed at. In less open democracies, where anti-press sentiments have morphed into press co-option tactics, internet rumours are sometimes legitimate sources of information because you can't trust the press or State regulatory agencies.

Fighting internet rumours in Kenya is difficult, especially when many Kenyans do not have access to formal news sources such as radio, television or newspapers. Companies like Safaricom and the Nation Media Group have tried to bridge this gap with the subscription-only SMS-based 411, but its premium rates (premium for very many price-conscious Kenyans) remains inadequate in disseminating accurate and timely information about current affairs or time-sensitive events, like whether or not a bank is going under, suffocated by a mountain of Non-Perform Loans and Bad Debts.

The traditional way of getting a handle of rumours in Kenya usually involves ham-fisted attempts at "messaging" and "controlling the narrative" by the publication of press releases, which are now also published on online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Tinder. Few organisations, public or private, have able messaging (or corporate communications') experts, and it shows every time there is a crisis. More often than not, institutions in crisis attempt to tug at our heartstrings by reminding us that they have been in business for decades and that our deposits, if these institutions are banks, are safe in their custody.

Many Kenyan institutions, including public ones, now have an army of so-called social media influencers on retainer, often given the unsavoury task of manipulating the so-called Kenyans on Twitter, about specific events. Many influencers have proven to be worth not more than a bucket of warm spit. Few of the rest have any real communications or messaging skills. What they often have is a social media following in the thousands, a following that is more often ephemeral than real and incapable of appreciating nuance or subtlety. More importantly, an online following is no guarantee of offline influence, where real people make real decisions with real-world repercussions.

A bank is rumoured to be in trouble. This news is first whispered in the unruly streets of the internet. The rumour is bolstered when senior managers either resign or are given the steel toe. Either way, the rumour gathers a head of steam when its quarterly reports are examined in depth and it is discovered that the bank's own auditors have qualified their report of its accounts. In the fast-moving world of tweets and retweets, numbers don't lie, and the audited numbers are not pretty. Pretty soon enough influential directors of the bank, including lawyers, weigh in with strong statements about the solidity of the bank and the longevity of its operations. No one cares. In fact, there is a collective "Meh!" from the online horde. The damage has been done.

In recent months our faith in the press has been shaken, first by the dismissal of a newspaper editor for a hard-hitting editorial that rubbed the Establishment the wrong way and then by the dismissal of one of the most incisive cartoonists for his thought-provoking editorial cartoons of and on the Establishment. Our faith in the Establishment itself has never been high, but it is almost surely irretrievably shattered now that even the President doesn't seem to know what message to send when it comes to anniversaries of painful events. We are left with the internet where if one sifts through enough chaff long enough, one will find a nugget of gold, such as the imminent collapse of a third Kenyan bank in three years.

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