Of Social Media And Weapons Of Mass Distraction

A man named Boniface Manono was the focus of a headline story about the anti-IEBC demonstrations in Nairobi and police brutality that was turned on demonstrators. Mr. Manono moved from obscurity, to sympathy, notoriety and fame in under 48 hours. He was killed, resurrected, castigated and celebrated on social media. Boniface Manono may have been a victim of police brutality, in what appeared to be a near death beating captured on camera but by the next day, he was up and bouncy defending his version of events in newsrooms. He was beaten to death and lived to tell the story.

I stumbled on the Boniface Manono episode on my compulsive Facebook visits, scanning for trending stories which now passes for research in my profession. I had not even made sense of Saleh “James Bond” Wanjala, (the man who hanged precariously from to an airborne helicopter for over a mile and lived to tell his story), before Manono intriguing tale of survival flooded my Facebook timeline, Twitter feed and Whatsapp groups.

Both stories had the kind of viral quality that uplifts one feelings of low self-esteem whenever we encounter the stupidity or misfortune of others playing out in public.

Social media news consumption patterns have disrupted traditional media. Facebook and Twitter are now my first port of call for news. Which is a shame for a man who wrote his first published newspaper article on a cranky typewriter.  I have tried holding out, staying true to my roots of print journalism but I still ended up joining the herd and picking up all the bad habits of the millennial urban generation. 20 seconds is about all I spare on a news story to capture my attention before I am gone. A painstakingly researched story on the legitimacy or lack of the IEBC, will be passed over for cat video because it does not involve any reading or processing. Like most millennials, I decide whether I want to read a story after I have read the comments on the post. If the comments are not sizzling enough, the story is not worth my time. I am a victim of my times. I now prioritize viral over value.

So James Bond Wanjala muddies any interrogation beyond the sensational headlines into the assassination of businessman Jacob Juma. Boniface Manono hogs the spotlight as I ignore the other nameless civilian victims of police brutality. Governor Kidero’s likability is more important than the fate of the victims of the collapsed buildings in Huruma. Babu Owino’s antics overshadow any real attempts to examine the alarming hooliganism that has taken root in institutions of higher learning like Nairobi University.

facebook sticks

I sense the telling signs of a growing addiction. It is taking immense discipline not to let social media eat up time that I should be spending on my side hustle.  I am an adult who should be well versed in self-control but peer pressure from my friends (who I have not met since university) to stay connected is my biggest challenge.

I have morphed into a smart phone carrying member of the FOMO generation ( Fear Of Missing Out). A generation that panics when there is no internet connection or when a smart phone runs out of charge. I have seen adults genuinely lose their minds when they misplace their phones. New fathers whose order of priorities is taking a picture, posting it Facebook before holding the newborn. Mothers who have a higher selfie count than their teenage daughters.

Social media is addictive and perhaps I should not be so quick to judge the victims. Addicts are helpless to what is served up, entrapped in an online fantasy world where life is a continuous parade of excitement and one click at a time. It is no different from living in the haze of heroin addiction.

In the past, Kenya’s three most harmful addictions were alcohol, sliced bread with margarine and easy money. Social media with free wifi is edging out alcohol because a man with a smartphone can live a day without taking a beer but not Facebook.  I am reminded of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein (who gets more than his fair share of mentions on social media), “I fear the day when technology will come to surpass human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots”.  This is ironical because online technology was supposed to liberate us from our smallness and connect us to a wider world. Instead, it has only made us more narcissistic, envious and anxious.

So maybe it is time to speak up against the harmful side effects of technology. I could start a Facebook campaign to pressurize phone manufacturers to place warning labels on smart phones. I want phone manufacturers and Telcos to take some responsibility for my addiction and pretend to care like the tobacco and alcohol industries do.

We need to see warnings that read, “Mobile Phones have a high potential for abuse. Keep out of reach of children. Social media may cause distraction and impair your ability to live in reality.”  I wonder how many likes I would get for that post?

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist. The blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.

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