By Payal Arora
I am no expert on the Oromo movement. I am an Internet studies expert. I hope that my outsider status will be useful to give a fresh perspective to those who have been on the frontlines of this movement for the last decade. I have dedicated much thought to the subject of the relationship between social media and social movements, particularly in the global south. I have given much thought about data politics on social media platforms and how it influences activism across the world.
A decade ago, this conversation would be difficult to have due to the massive digital divide outside the West, including in Africa. The mobile phone however has served as a game changer in these regions, where already the majority of mobile phone subscribers reside outside the west. While the internet penetration is still less than 5% in African countries including Ethiopia, the pace at which it is increasing promises radical access to digital platforms in the next decade, making this conversation more pertinent than ever.
This is an important discussion to have given that our worldviews have radically shifted over the decades on the role of technology to create social change. In 2009, Mark Pfeifle, the former US national security advisor recommended Twitter for the Nobel Peace Prize. He argued that this microblogging site empowered people through its platform as it allowed people to express themselves freely and organize themselves to action. This was during the Iran elections in 2009 where more than 200,000 tweets went out every hour during that period. He said, “When traditional journalists were forced to leave the country, Twitter became a window for the world to view hope, heroism, and horror.” This captured a larger sentiment during that time where many tech enthusiasts believed that as our public space gets more restrictive especially under authoritarian regimes, social media could provide an alternative public political sphere.
Fast forward to 2017. There was a major discussion on a recent 60 min show, a prominent talk show, on whether “Social Media is Killing Democracy?” Far from social media as a liberating tool, many critics claim that these platforms limit democracy. For instance, many people have blamed social media for the outcomes of Brexit and Trump as President. Facebook has come under fire for not moderating and flagging fake news for instance, allowing the voters to get influenced by misinformation going viral on their platform.
This kind of conversation on social media as good or bad for democracy, while dominant among news outlets, is in reality channeling our energies in the wrong direction. It is
pointless to debate the intrinsic value of a technology as they only gain meaning when applied to a context. It is also pointless to speak in general terms of a technology’s neutrality or bias without looking at its specific infrastructures and human usage. For instance, nuclear energy is not innately good or bad. It can wipe out our entire civilization through the bomb or can save our planet via renewable energy. We need to also recognize that technologies are not permanent and fixed but evolving tools shaped by several actors, including you and me.
So let us start to unpack digital political cultures in the global South, and particularly regarding the Oromo movement by looking at it through three lenses. When I speak of digital political cultures, we need to look at the physical and the virtual spaces that people inhabit, the rules of engagement of institutions around citizens that influence their actions and the norms and values dictating their social interactions
- DIGITAL SPACE- ONLINE AND OFFLINE DEBATE
All social movements require points of departures and spaces of inhabitation to start with. Social movements are shaped by its spaces of occupation. For the longest time, digital space has been considered as novel, unique, unprecedented and radical in nature. Technological determinism has long dictated our worldview. To capture the shift over the decades on the debate on digital space, let us focus on two questions, one asked in the early years of the internet on “Are we in an era of post-geography?” Today, we instead ask, “Are we in an era of hyper-geography?” So let us take the first question: Are we in an era of post-geography? In those days, we viewed the internet as a space that transcended borders. The implications were tremendously exciting for the times. Common metaphors used during those days give us an idea of how enthusiastic people were about the digital sphere. People proposed that the internet was a “global village” where regardless of caste, class, tribal affiliation, sex, and age, we could all come together. Communities would be formed across the world based on shared values and beliefs and age-old barriers and walls would be obsolete. The nation state would become redundant. Another metaphor was the “wild wild web” that leveraged on California’s Wild West promise of egalitarianism where anyone with drive and effort could occupy and take ownership of the vast and infinite space.
Today, the maturation of the internet has compelled us to move away from this framing and ask instead, “Are we in an era of hyper-geography?” Political events like Brexit and Trumpian politics show that many citizens want to erect more barriers and protect themselves from what they see as porous borders. Nationalism is stronger than ever before. Locality has taken precedence over the global. With new technologies, reality is even augmented to extend a political moment, an event and sustain its impact through persistence of its circulation.
Given the urban-virtual flux, we could even accept that we are in a hybrid geography where we are at once both online and offline, engaged in multiple political spheres of the digital and geographic kind. Through the mobile phone for instance, we are accentuating our presence, protesting physically while engaging with the virtual protesting public through live
streaming for instance. However, it is intellectual laziness to ascribe to the concept of blurring as that translates to ceasing to examine the specifics of these urban-digital relationships to the political event in question. The only way to tackle this is to root these conversation in particular political movements.
We need to remember that space is territory and territory comes with its own historical blueprint. Territory is deliberately constructed. Take the Oromo movement. It is built on a contested history of the sovereignty of Ethiopia. The ongoing struggle for territory is one of the defining features of the social movement. The adopting of colonial discourse for this movement provides an alternative narrative to Ethiopia being the only nation that was able to withstand colonization. This converts history into myth – a history of centuries old peaceful coexistence of indigenous people as in the case of Ethiopia, Rwanda and Sudan, Bosnia and many other similar nations and instead, we have a picture of territorial tensions between people. Through de-legitimation of the government’s appropriation of land, it legitimizes its identity. Violence through territory is a violence on its people. Displacement of people (the Oromo diaspora) for instance, find alternative inhabitations both of the physical and the virtual kind. As the Oromo people get displaced across the globe, they re-place themselves online through digital solidarity networks as well as engage with their new homelands. So we cannot deny the influence of the cultural shaping of these digital spaces as rooted in the political climate of the past and present that the Oromo people have been subjected to.
Border-making (physical territory)
So let us look at border making of the physical kind. A new global trend is rising of land grabbing by the Ethiopian State from the Oromo people. They are handing out the land to companies from other emerging economies such as China and India to grow and export grains to their own home countries. This privatization of land diffuses responsibility beyond the Ethiopian power centers and thereby, creates global complicity. Likewise, the privatization of the Ethiopian telecom sector in the hands of the Chinese who are aligned with authoritarian style media regulation allows these infrastructures to be controlled and monitored by those in power. The indigenization of global actors diffuses and distributes authority. When that happens, it is difficult to hold one party accountable, making resistance harder as it is difficult to stand up against an abstract consortium of local and global actors.
To consolidate this gate-keeping function, a number of media laws have been in place that reinstates the control of citizen expression against dominant political parties. For instance, we have the mass media and freedom of information proclamation act from the 1990s to silence criticism as well as the anti-terrorism proclamation in 2009 to criminalize journalists and activists. There is also the charities and societies law that blocks or restricts access of human rights activists and organizations in the name of national security. This is compounded with the ritualization of media terror from confiscating mobile phones of citizens protesting, jamming broadcasts, destroying cell towers near zones of political activity, and blocking websites particularly during demonstrations. There is even evidence of
how the Ethiopian government has installed malware/spyware onto computers of Ethiopian journalists in the Washington DC area for instance.
Another example of the urban-digital hybridity is the activism of Diasporas in their new homelands. For instance, the global Oromo community keeps the cause alive through a combination of physical and intimate encounters alongside efforts for digital solidarity. They initiate town hall meetings to keep the fervor alive on challenges facing their nation. The more restrictive one’s homeland, the more moral responsibility endowed on your shoulders. There is pressure to continue lobby work in the adopted homelands for global intervention and here again, the use of blogs, online news magazines, and Facebook groups come to play to consolidate the cause. Demonstrations in these lands serve as inspiration to the native communities still in their homeland under oppressive conditions reminding them that they are not forgotten.
Border-making (imagined territory)
Of course, infrastructures are only part of the story. The mediation of one’s political imagination is just as relevant. Media institutions and the content they produce that influences our political thinking needs examining. We need to look closely at the nexus between the old and new media systems. There is more enthusiasm for new media as a stimulant of political diversity as the producers of content are far less restricted compared to the old media empire. Ethiopia’s old media systems of the television and the radio are still influenced by the ideology of media development from the 1970s where media systems are meant to contribute to the exercise of nation building. Ethiopia is not alone as many nations in the global south around that time were using mass media strategically to build national identity emerging from centuries of colonial rule. However, today, as free press strengthens nations, the old ideologies continue to persist, disabling the progress of a nation.
Besides Ethiopia having one of the most state controlled media systems, they also have a very small journalist cohort. A study done in 2013 estimated that there was about 1400 journalists providing information to a population of about 90 million people. A ratio of one journalist per 65,000 people. With social media where citizens become amateur journalists, documenting and commenting on political events, this expands the sphere of influence that the average person has over the political imagination.
Facebook free basics have risen to prominence, promising a vibrant alternative digital political sphere. After all, it is seemingly controlled externally with a libertarian ideology to media censorship. Furthermore, its free access to select sites mitigates the digital divide. Looking closely however, this infrastructure is not free from national political control. Facebook is a business after all. It has an alarming track record of cooperating with authoritarian regimes, obliging governments with data requests on their citizens. A recent article by the Financial Review ran a headline that “Facebook’s Free Basics is an African dictator’s dream.” Perhaps dramatic, but it does hold a grain of truth here. It shut down the most popular Ethiopian page, Mereja, claiming that it caused people to “like or engage with it unintentionally in a misleading way”. Facebook has a similarly troubling record on privacy
in the United States where they yielded results for 80% of government requests. They have also cooperated with location-based services such as Geofeedia, enhancing the surveillance of protesters.
To make matters worse, they have come under fire recently with the circulation of fake news during the US elections that many critics claim, influenced the election results. For instance, the Facebook fake news post that Hilary was dying during the election spread like wildfire as these networks are designed to automatically spread news in a viral fashion. It consolidates our worldviews on these platforms, where we continue to be exposed to people and information that is aligned already with our worldview, thereby reinforcing our stand. This media/political bubble can have serious consequences as we have seen with the elections where people trusted these platforms to inform them about the positions of the politicians. Facebook however continues to claim that it is not a media organization. Legally, they are not a media organization, which allows them to escape responsibility on the kind of content they promote.
So there are two points to remember here when we speak about the territory of digital space. Digital space does not default to a global space. It is hybrid in the sense that the Oromo movement is still rooted in the geography of Ethiopia and the meaning of land. It is global as solidarity networks are formed across Oromo diasporas that work together to construct a collective voice in a face of tremendous opposition. Secondly, a plurality of actors of both the private and public kind, and the external and the internal does not necessitate choice that is more democratic. As the Facebook example illustrates, the libertarian ideology subsumes to the authoritarian ideology as commercial interests prevails. In this sense, Facebook is just as intensely local as the Ethiopian media system.
- NETWORKS OF DIGITAL ACTIVISM
Gayatri Spivak, in one of the most influential postcolonial essays in 1988, ‘Can the subaltern speak? brings up the notion of the marginalized voice represented by Eurocentric concerns. Assuming anonymity and muteness, the world’s most oppressed have been spoken for over these decades. However, if we are to go by the last decades of social media activism and the low barriers of entry in communicating political thought, we can at last say that indeed, yes, the subaltern can speak. However, we cannot assume that while they do speak, that they actually get heard. To be heard, they need to adopt what Spivak calls “strategic essentialism,” a kind of temporary solidarity by deliberately simplifying their group identity. This reductionism makes the social cause more palatable and accessible to the non-oppressed audience, which in turn, could possibly lead to social change. In layman’s terms, we need to ask ourselves honestly – Is propaganda compatible with activism? Does the means justify the ends? And is there value to victimhood?
With the Oromo diasporas spread across the world much like other diasporas, some have advocated ethnic essentialism as a strategy to create an united moral front. To do so, you need to deploy a cultural revival to create communal bonding. You also need to simplify historical narratives that underplays past violence by the group and emphasizes victimhood
instead. It is important to have an authentic moral community for the diaspora to make oneself heard. Multiculturalism gets replaced by a singular clearly defined group identity. The further the distance from the homeland and the longer the political battle, the more pertinent these strategies become. The alternative is where multiple separate organizations of activism get set up, each with their own agendas, diluting the mission and possibly leading to self-destruction of the larger cause of statehood.
The revival of the gadaa system, Oromo’s centuries old indigenous democracy tradition is one such strategy. However, within this cultural revival, the role of the women may become marginal, relegating them to domesticity. Gender inequality is subsumed to the larger ideal of Oromo self-determination. Using this narrative of cultural revival to consolidate authenticity among a variety of activist groups online can come at the price of exclusion. Myth becomes reality. We need to be careful what for you ask for. We have to be careful when constructing community networks online as revival of historical practices can sacrifice inclusivity. Who gets represented impacts belongingness and thereby participation. The question is, going by Spivak’s recommended strategy of temporal strategic essentialism is that often, these struggles are far from temporary and become a permanence in one’s group identity, and potentially impossible to revert in the future.
Having formed these networks, it is also worth looking at the circulation of their communicative practices. In which case, we cannot avoid computational politics here. We are in a data rich-data poor society where a few organizations have control of our datasets while the many are subjected to the invisible rules of a platform’s algorithms. Building trust is more effective when people are harnessed to be distributors of content. Companies like Facebook profit from the trust we have of our personal networks. Creating intimacy is strategy politicians deploy to engineer consent and even fandom through personalization. For instance, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has one of the largest twitter following among all politicians, even more than any mainstream news media channel or journalist in India. However, it was discovered that a tremendous number of them initially did not have a profile picture, had never tweeted and their twitter IDs carry numerals, all indicators that they are spam bots to create the illusion of political popularity. However, the fake became the real as this led to a network effect of more followers due to the algorithms bias to those with the most following. People believed in his popularity through these numbers, which led to real popularity. So the already data rich get richer. Political capital is the same way. A new political underdog requires ingenious ways to gain a following in a system that is stacked against him or her.
- AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT WITHIN DIGITAL POLITICAL CULTURES
The body has served as a powerful instrument for the political cause. Even a simple item like clothing comes to the service of politics as it makes the cause more visible and it penetrates our imagination on a daily basis, normalizing the cause. Take for instance Oromo clothing, a symbol of self-expression and identity. Wearing beads on the neck or a bracelet or the colours of a skirt speak volumes. These are easily compressed political messages that can be circulated both through urban and digital networks. According to Amnesty International, expressing Oromo culture and heritage through the simple act of clothing is viewed as an act of defiance and dissent. It is no wonder that people wearing traditional Oromo clothing have been arrested at Oromo traditional festivals.
A good comparable example is the Palestinian Kufiyya. It became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism in the 80s and an icon of global solidarity. In the last decade however, it became a victim of its own efficacy. In the media, we got to see Sting, Sarah Jessica Parker, Justin Timberlake, Snoop Dogg, and Kate Moss adorn the kufiyya, casualizing politics. Even stores such as Urban Outfitters started to carry this piece of clothing for the rebel seeking youth in the West. Of course, this got caught up with a media blowout when one of the pro-Israel activists complained about the company showing sympathy for what they called “Palestinian terrorists.” Quickly, the company apologized and withdrew this item of clothing from their stores.
The price of visibility can be commodification. This transnational mobility of a cultural item that is politicized can just as quickly become commercialized through the very same effort. Social media groups such as “Palestinian scarf: Understand it or don’t bother wearing it” and “I refuse to let the kufiyya become a high fashion statement” have sprung up to contain the narrative, to control the political message but the reality is that items of activism, once out in the public, gain their own life.
The bottom line is that if we want to understand and shape social movements and use social media to do so, we need to acknowledge that the digital and the urban provide multiple and intersecting worlds. These environments –pubs, public plazas, public squares, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more, have each their own rules of engagement that are oriented to particular group interests. We also need to recognize that culture moves and reproduces over time but also over different contexts, traveling from the physical to the digital. The Oromo movement keeps getting opportunities to reinvent itself with each new platform, and particularly online as physical spaces of protest have become more restricted and impractical with the vast Oromo diaspora. And of course, in these acts of reproduction, we are at the crossroads of moral dilemmas of re-creating group identity and balancing ethic simplicity and unity to speak on a global stage versus the reality of complex multiple interpretations of what it means to be an Oromo in today’s global and digital age.
Dr. Payal Arora is associate professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam’s Department of Media and Communication. She is also the founder and executive director of Catalyst Lab. Follow her on Twitter: 3LMantra. A version of this essay was presented at the 2017 Oromo Studies Association Mid-year Conference, where Dr. Arora was a keynote speaker.