The confusing science of caring

I didn’t change my Twitter account to have a green background, nor did I change my location to Tehran, but when the protests erupted after the recent elections, there were great cadres of people ready to show their support and “Iran-ify” their Twitter. This has been one of the great strengths of social media in social causes in that people are are able to start grassroots movements for no costs. It’s a wondrous thing and it’s interesting to note what happened with Iran as it’s one of the first moments that I recall a unified, immediate force trying to contend with injustice in the world.

It’s going to take a long time to find out of if these types of movements will actually have any effect. They are often spearheaded by those not in the country from the safety of their own home and getting that to manifest in to something physical in the real world can be a really tricky conversion. For instance, despite all recent movements (digital or physical), Tibet is still part of China, Ahmadinejad was re-elected to be president of Iran, and Darfur is still part of Sudan, just to name a few.

But it’s interesting to note in all of this that African causes have yet to really see any online movements form around them. The obvious exception is the aforementioned Darfur, but many are saying that’s just because it’s been marketed well and while I’m in no position to pass judgment, it is true that most things Darfur-related have not grown up organically. I’m talking more about situations like the recent elections in Gabon (dead president’s son won; results disputed), upcoming elections in Cote d’Ivoire (current president has been in power without being properly elected for five years) and most importantly Guinea, where a military coup took place at the end of last year and elections are supposed to happen in January.

These injustices are not only largely unreported in popular media, but are often avoided in social media as well. I’m curious as to why this is the case, especially as I’ve been doing what I can to help a number of people who have been writing on Konakry Express to try and at least have some information out there about Guinea as there is very, very little in general. This is especially sad given that nearly 200 people were killed in an opposition protest just last month.

What is the “critical meme” that needs to be reached before a movement will “go Iran” and maintain a mass of individuals interested in reaching out digitally to support a group of people in the world? I would say that it’s when the affected area is English speaking and thus the reason why problems in Francophone Africa are unknown, but Iranians speak Persian, so that can’t be it, although I’m sure it has some effect depending on the region.

Is it that it has to start with people living in Europe and North America? Or is it that the digital movement needs to be prodded by traditional television and print media? This would make sense in Iran as it is often covered. It would also make sense why issues in Africa go uncovered as the traditional media cares little about what happens there, often reporting things vastly wrong because news desks are copying each other (that’s a damned good read) and have basically stopped reporting.

The perfect victim is a white male professional, 40 years old, at the height of his earning power, struck down at his prime.

That is from the beginning of A Civil Action and it is the perfect personal injury lawsuit. On that note, but in a completely different vein, I would put forth what it seems is the perfect storm for social media to take off on an African issue:

1) English speaking or a large number of people in the group being able to speak English.
2) Large pre-established blogging/twitter presence around the issue/region.
3) Established traditional media coverage of the affected region.
4) Possibly being a former British colony as that often fires up the BBC to report.
5) ?

As you can probably see, Kenya fits this profile quite well, which would go to show why we heard so much about the post-election violence in 2007 and had Twitter been more popular, it could very well have taken off in digital circles like Iran did. It also explains why Guinea is being ignored due to their being a Francophone country, having very little in the way of blogging and social media community, and not having large media outlets covering it. As another example, Congo has traditional media coverage, but no blogging community (only a few traditional journalists doing blogging as a side affair) and is also a French speaking country.

I believe that it’s imperative for blogging/twitter to be established for a digital movement to build upon. This can be fired up a good deal by traditional media being established, but it doesn’t have to be. Blogging is free (beyond the cost of an internet connection of course) and it can start wherever it has to. Maybe once it does, we’ll see more movements grow around African issues when they arise because I don’t want to think that these problems going unnoticed is just because people don’t care and more that they just don’t have access to real, personal information.

One Reply to “The confusing science of caring”

  1. brilliant article miquel!
    you manage to touch on so many different (and important) aspects of why events in Africa are often ignored in European media, and also the (so far unexploited) potential of new technologies in Africa

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