As I surfed on the Internet one day, my eyes came across a Facebook post in which someone was congratulating Dr. Carlos Valera for leading a team of local doctors to ‘successfully’ carry out an operation to separate the co-joined twins at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe.
Just like any other well -meaning Malawian, I thought, “saving lives” was indeed a cause for celebration. But my happiness was short-lived as someone commenting on the same post said the much-awaited surgery had not taken place and the twins had died before the surgery.
This happened when the dust had not yet settled regarding the health of State President Peter Mutharika, who then had just arrived from the United States of America (USA) where, among many other engagements, he attended the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
Social media was awash with reports on Mutharika’s health. Some declared him dead. Those that speculated about the president’s health tried hard to make their story ‘louder, logical and believable’ than that from the government side.
Unfortunately, many people believed the social media stories to an extent that Public Affairs Committee (PAC), a religious organisation, weighed in by saying ‘what is government hiding’, challenging government to come out with the ‘truth’. The opposition and the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) leaders joined the fray, accusing government of hiding information. Lots of demands were made.
This reaction vindicated what Mutharika has been saying that “Malawians believe in the social media more that the Holy Bible”.
Now look here, before Sunday October 16 2016 when the president jetted in at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) the discourse in social media was that Mutharika had died!
After his arrival the story changed, he is back, but incapacitated. They justified this by claiming that the use of the left hand to wave and greet dignitaries was enough proof. The leader of opposition in Parliament, Lazarus Chakwera was quoted in the media calling upon Mutharika to step down on health grounds.
Fast forward to Friday, October 21 2016, business came to a standstill. Everyone was glued to Malawi Broadcasting (MBC) Television and radio as Mutharika, enjoying robust health waved and greeted people using his right hand and engaged the media for 135 minutes.
As action speaks louder than words, Malawians were now able to gauge for themselves whether the information they were being fed was correct or not. After watching Mutharika live on MBC-TV challenging boxer Isaac Chilemba to a 12 round bout, CSOs and opposition leaders realised that they were towing an ill-advised public opinion. There should be lessons to tap from this incident.
Watchdog’s role in times of social media
I know watchdogs are there for people. They are entrusted with all mechanisms to track government activities and inform the public if there are abuses. I expected watchdogs, including the media, to trace Mutharika during his overstay and reveal to us their findings. Instead they all chose to speculate from social media. If watchdogs can’t find the truth, who is watching for the ordinary Malawians?
Why social media should be watched
We are a generation living in difficult times. The social media have moved from being a relief to a threat. It can build or destroy. Mutharika’s health issue has only created enmity between the governing party and opposition parties and CSOs. This is why social media is regulated in some countries. However, regulating the media is not a solution, rather we need to be responsible because even the international media now keeps its eyes on the social media to find stories.
The moment we speculate unconfirmed information, we should realise that the whole world is reading and we are damaging or building our national image. n