Appraising Eritrea’s Social Media (Part II)
Reining our Elephant
I want to start this follow-up article by thanking Haile for the following very constructive comments that he posted for the first part:
“I know the topic ICT could be daunting, however your piece has come short in practical appraisal of the net effect of social media (say in the last decade or 5 years.) It uses practically no data to base the assertions made and spends too much time in rhetoric than analyzing the relevant factors (such as barriers, trends, regulations, controls…)…..The topic is very important and timely issue. I would have liked more rigorous treatment of the subject than utilizing it to purely indulge in an opinionated discourse.’’
Granted, much of the article was anemic in substance while at the same time being lax in pointing out the many ‘purported’ short comings. But, as Haile rightly mentioned, it was always going to be an uphill task to try to critically appraise the effects of social media tools (SMTs) on our burning national agenda. The space provided by SMTs is by its very nature social and based on a dynamic two-way interaction that makes it unruly, unpredictable, and very complex to assess. And, unfortunately, our very Eritreaness also adds to the complexness by making this ‘‘social beast’’ more rambunctious.
Besides, the dearth of available material on the raised topic makes tackling the task at hand more challenging. My googling came up with piles of Eritrean WebPages, social networking and multimedia platforms, blogs, and video sharing channels. But the search engine uncovered only less than half a dozen academic articles that tried to make sense out of the Eritrean cyberspace, and almost all these articles were published by foreigners, before 2005, and the focus was largely on dehai.com.
The commenter also remarked about the timeliness and importance of the subject. I could not agree more!
As I mentioned in the first part of this article, the illegitimate regime in Asmara is lying on its death bed. One of the last remaining pillars that continue to hold the roof over its dilapidated power structure is its almost total control of information by its monopoly over mass media; and, as in others, the tide (greatly helped by technology) has long since started to turn against this closely guarded domain too, and more and more Eritreans-at home and abroad- are now starting to surf in the freer Eritrean cyberspace in search of a better alternative for their regular ‘’diet’’ of information, news, commentaries and discussions about Eritrea. The forces of change (organized political parties, civic societies, youth, associations, etc) can capitalize on this largely fortuitous phenomenon. Pragmatic, wise, and strategic use of SMTs cannot only help the latter to consolidate their influence in this crucial sphere, but also to pass on a message to all Eritreans that they are a genuine, authentic, relevant, coherent and serious alternative to the regime that continues to misrule at home.
But the current culture and trend in the Eritrean cyberspace doesn’t give one space for optimism and it leaves much to be desired for. I tried to raise these worrying aspects in my last article by delving somewhat excessively into what may have been an ‘’opinionated’’ critique. But, truth be told, nobody can deny that almost tangible and organic disconnectedness of our politics (online and offline) from the reality of the miserable millions on the ground. There is a gaping and widening chasm between a resurgent online youth activism and the traditional organized political forces; a significant majority remains disengaged, silent, cynical, but watchful; and, I also believe that to a great extent our discourse is a long way from where it out to be.
In the following part of this article I will try to take you on a brief tour through the different stages of evolution of the Eritrean cyberspace. And the rest will be taken up by suggestions into how best we can harness the potential of this unruly ‘’social beast’’. In doing so I promise you (and Haile, particularly) that I will do my utmost to refrain from again unleashing another round of ‘rhetorical’ deluge.
The Eritrean Cyberspace
Eritrea and the Web made their entry into the world stage together in 1991. Sir Tim Berners invented the World Wide Web and set up the first website in 1991, and the internet was subsequently commercialized and became easily accessible to the wider public sometime around 1993. But it was to take another ten years before Eritrea went online in late 2000. And, 23 years after Independence and the commercialization of the Internet, Eritrea’s internet infrastructure remains the least developed in Africa. The 2013 estimates of Budds Comm, the largest telecommunications research site in the internet, indicate that Eritrea has an internet penetration rate of only 8% (i.e.: around 400,000 users out of an estimated population of just over 6 million). The site also shows the penetration rate for mobile and Facebook users as 7% and 0.3%, respectively.
What the above figures make clear is that the virtual space provided by SMTs (Internet, Mobile, Facebook, etc.) remains largely off-limits for the outstanding majority of Eritreans living at home. This also reflects the regime’s dogged and paranoid determination to keep this sector deliberately underdeveloped, and thus unwittingly revealing its weak spot, an almost pathologic fear of the public space.
This is in direct contradistinction to the situation that exists outside Eritrea’s borders. The last decade has seen a phenomenal birth of a vibrant online community of Eritreans going into the tens of thousands and growing. This was made possible by a fortuitous combination of a rapidly evolving and user friendly technological innovation, easy access to these tools, and a resurgent flood of largely youth fleeing population from Eritrea. As such, my discussion on the development of Eritrea’s cyberspace will for the most part pertain to this latter community; and, this evolution can be divided into three phases, each having a set of distinct and different features, including the socio-demographic characteristics and types of SMTs utilized.
In 1992 a volunteer team of few Eritreans living in the USA entered the national record books by launching the first Eritrean webpage: www.dehai.org. This marked the silent and largely unnoticed birth of the Eritrean cyberspace amidst an overwhelming and euphoric feeling of national pride of achievement. The vision behind Dehai’s debut was to bolster this national accomplishment by providing a favorable medium for the diaspora population to engage in the project of nation building. In the words of its founders, ‘Dehai’s objective was to solve Eritrea’s problems by sharing information and proposing ideas, and to foster a speedy flow of ideas to and from Eritrea’ ( Asmerom et al.2001).
Dehai’s inaugural was also significant in another important aspect. The virtual space it created became the first Eritrean public sphere (though limited in scope) where Eritreans can enjoy their freedom of expression. This occurred long before the brief arrival and death of Eritrea’s private press towards the end of the 1990s. Dehai’s Charter states: ‘The purpose of this Charter is to promote freedom of expression and to facilitate an open environment in which members may express a diversity of opinion that is to be both welcome and respected. All subscribers are duty bound to abide by and preserve the spirit of the Charter’ (Dehai 1999).
In her research paper – Diaspora, Cyberspace, and Political Imagination: The Eritrean Diaspora Online- Victoria Bernal writes that Dehai ‘served as the first public sphere for Eritrean politics and fostered the development of Internet intellectuals and a wider public of readers and occasional posters…. and, perhaps most importantly, it has offered a comparatively safe space to develop ideas, perspectives and critiques and to experiment with dialogue across social ruptures, such as those between Muslim and Christian Eritreans.’
But throughout the 1990s Dehai largely remained an esoteric venture of a few educated elites with substantial barriers (foremost being access and literacy) for the ordinary Eritrean. ‘From inception to its heydays during the 1998-2000 border war (with Ethiopia) it was de facto a diasporic cyberspace, but one with an important link to Eritrean leadership’ (Bernal).
On the legacy of Dehai, Bernal writes: Dehai is a labor of love and obsession that was created and has been maintained and developed by its core founders and by its posters who have given large amounts of their time to the site. The social history of Eritrean cyberspace therefore consists of ordinary people inventing a public sphere that made possible the articulation of ideas and sentiments that could not be expressed elsewhere (certainly not with in Eritrea…), and widened participation in debates by linking interlocutors who were unknown to one another and geographically dispersed. Eritreans who work as taxi drivers and parking lot attendants have become pundits and poets online.’
From Ceasefire in Border War to Cyber Warfare
‘One good thing about this war, if there is any, is that we are finally talking openly about what is going wrong.’ This sentence explains best the brutal reality of the period immediately after the cease fire agreement that ended the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean border war. They were the words of an Asmarino man, as recounted by Bettina Conrad of the Institute of African Studies in Hamburg, in her academic paper: Out of the ‘Memory hole’: Alternative narrative of the Eritrean revolution in the diaspora.
But the heated exchanges that the end of the war set off were limited not only to what had gone wrong before or during the war. The discourse that the two year war opened up and the crude handling by the regime of the dissent that ensued led to broader and deeper issues. Conrad writes in her research paper:
‘…while the government’s intolerance towards dissenting views had before been masked first by a general ‘selective amnesia’ and self-censorship and later by a war-imposed need for ‘unconditional solidarity’, the post-border war situation for the first time produced an audible and widespread discontent….’opening’ a Pandora’s box of interpretations of the past.’
Reckoning over the just ended war let loose a chain of events that birthed what can be called the second and clamorous phase in the evolution of the Eritrean cyberspace, ending dehai’s quiet dominance, single-mindedness of purpose and the harmony that existed within this sphere. What was a largely spent, marginal, and negligible force made a smooth, effortless, and opportunistic entry into what had become by this time an easily accessible medium; and ever since then the Eritrean cyberspace was never to know peace or calm.
It was as if this virtual space has been impatiently waiting for just any pretext to open up, diversify and ‘’unshackle’’ itself from the self-imposed taciturnity of dehai. Unlike traditional forms of media ( Radio, TV, printed media, etc.) which is a top-down, controlled, opaque, passive form of ‘polished ‘ content communication, social media prospers in a more freer, open, and unstructured environment that is conducive for a bottom-up and transparent communication with a dialectical content and intent. And the post-war period provided the perfect condition for the Eritrean cyberspace to revert back to its amorphous, innate and rather unpredictable form.
This period witnessed a remarkable rise in the number of websites accompanied by diversity in content and presentation. Whereas dehai has mainly been an English language based media with some transcriptions into Tigrigna, this later phase saw a flourishing of a host of different Arabic and Tigrgna language based websites. An EDA page posted in 2004 shows 18 different websites of the opposition camp, and the current link at awate.com shows 35 websites as belonging to the Eritrean opposition, resistance, and others in comparison to 5 websites of the PFDJ and sympathizers (notice the leanness, eh?).
Down below in the real world, inside Eritrea, the regime had instituted a series of repressive measures: dissent was mercilessly quashed, dozens arrested, and the young private media was nabbed in the bud. But the fate of the regime was sealed in the virtual space, and it was always going to be a losing fight. The century’s preeminent mode of communication has already started to level the political field, and unlike in Eritrea where political parties are not allowed, exiled foes of the regime were happily jumping to set up an ‘adobe’ in the virtual space with little difficulty; and, it was from the cyberspace that serious challenge to the regime’s legitimacy and ‘ownership’ of the recent and not so distant history was going to come.
Old and a new set of sub-national political parties, disgruntled top government officials, new civic society associations, and dissatisfied and apolitical members of the general public started resorting to the virtual space to use it as a platform to introduce and promote their different agendas, narrate their competitive versions of history, and substantiate their concerns and claims. Some of these include: nharnet.com and meskerem.com representing ‘hibernating’ ELF factions, Eritrean-kunama.com and farajat.com calling for minority rights, EGS’s eritreanglobalsolidarity.org and emdhr.org that campaign for democracy and human rights, and a host of other more popular web-journals, including this one, with their main focus on news, debates and commentary.
One modest study was carried out in 2007 by a researcher from the University of Glasgow to try to understand the socio-demographic characteristics of the diaspora online community and ways the internet was being used by this community (e.g.: economic, politics, social, cultural, etc.) 700 online questionnaire were distributed with the help of 12 webmasters, and analysis of data from the respondents showed that 82% were male, 67% aged 25-49, 17% above 50, and only 8% under 25. The results also showed that 47% of the respondents had left Eritrea before 1993 and 20% after 2000; and regarding education and occupation, the research showed that 50% of the respondents as having completed university education with 45% having professional or managerial job. One key aim of this survey was to investigate why individuals use Eritrean websites, and the results showed that 92% visit the sites in search of general information about Eritrea whereas 70% associated their intention with current news and regular affairs (Eritrea Diaspora Networks, Dr Emma Stewart.)
The major and all-important achievement of what I had termed the second phase in the evolution of the Eritrean cyberspace is that of accommodating and giving saliency to the public sphere, resulting in a permeating knock-on effect on the on-line and off-line communities. This phase widened the public sphere and opened up the first public arena for Eritrean politics by creating a more pluralistic and independent space for exchange of information, dissent, and debate on democratic procedures and norms. Conditions were also facilitated to start the process of documenting and deterring human rights abuses at home and abroad.
Another noteworthy achievement of this period relates to history. A victor’s version of history has been snatched from the ‘sanitized’ archives of the ruling regime and thrown out into the open; and a heated and acrimonious debate is still going on, with narrators vehemently disagreeing on dates, events, facts, and interpretations. They say history is about part forgetting and part remembering, and the selective side of the history narrators is only going to make it difficult to arrive at the historical truth.
This phase had also its main drawbacks and challenges. The dichotomous nature of SMTs makes it a lethal weapon with disruptive potential, and this period saw the atomization of Eritrean politics and fragmentation of the public sphere. Shirky writes: ‘There’s a fine line between pluralism and cacophony, between advocacy and intolerance, between the expansion of public sphere and its hopeless fragmentation…’ As the online community kept increasing, more and more actors were empowered, the voices got louder, less rational and less civil resulting in the despairing current situation of a ceaseless cyber-warfare with no end in sight.
Another characteristic of this second phase that is reminiscent of the era of dehai was the resemblance of the online community in the two and the persistent barrier issues pertaining to technology, access, and literacy. This observation is partly supported by the research mentioned above which shows a sample online community (2007) of the middle-aged, well established, well educated, and well off diaspora with the young and recent émigrés just starting to appear on the fringes.
Ascendancy of the Youth in the Eritrean Cyberspace
Though the SMTs that ‘leveled’ the political field in the virtual sphere became accessible for the public in the second half of the last decade (e.g. Facebook in 2006, Paltalk in 2007), it was the 2000-2001 tumultuous events in the Arab world that shook up and catapulted the youth into this sphere. Wael Ghonim, cyber-strategist of the Egyptian ‘revolution’, had described their tactics as following: ‘we use Facebook to schedule protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.’
Eritrean youth activists (EYC and EYSC) took cue and started working on a ‘strategy that fits the situation on the ground in Eritrea’ (Daniel Gebremichael in an interview with Awate Team, Feb 10/2012), and on 11/11/11 they took the ‘fight’ home, from the cyberspace into the streets of Asmara, thereby ushering in what I will call henceforth the third and current phase of the development of Eritrea’s cyber-space. They called their campaign initially ‘’empty the streets’’ of Asmara which subsequently they changed into the Arbi Harnet (Freedom Friday) Campaign, by now a popular and household name, with its own website, and scores of dedicated members. A few weeks back these dedicated campaigners, with the aid of Robocalls, managed to send 9390 messages in a single day calling for school and work boycott (www.npr.org).
This phase is still in its developmental stages, but it has filled the yawning gap in the cyberspace, by bringing in the missing link: the demographic and physical energy of the youth, which comprise above 70% of our population at home and abroad. And its entry into the virtual space has dramatically rejuvenated online activism, as shown by a series of grass-roots mobilizations and demonstrations in many major cities all over the world.
Eventually, it is not tools and technology, but people, organizations, and strategies that will determine the fate of our country. But, through their gradual evolution, SMTs and the virtual space have helped our cause a great deal by facilitating the growth of our online-activist community to the present level. The biggest challenge now is on how to convert this into real political and socio-economic mobilization, a united front of ousting the regime in Asmara, followed by national reconciliation and the institution of democracy and normalcy.
The accumulated effort of many dedicated and committed Eritreans has succeeded in creating a ‘’microcosm’’ of the real Eritrea in the cyberspace, a virtual ‘nation’ that reflects our heterogeneity, dissonances, frustrations, and aspirations. Over the last two decades many devoted and erudite Eritrean writers – with noble, worthy, suspicious, or mediocre character –have shared with their readers their eloquently written and insightful articles on these very pages, and thus giving us and future generation of Eritreans troves of information that will definitely further enrich our rich national treasure. The sojourn into the past beyond the unlocked gates had not been pleasant and it was filled with mixed emotions.
The selective and prejudiced pressure that propels the pen of a narrator will always make it very difficult to arrive at historical truth, if there is ever one. In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson writes that ‘national memory is part remembering and part forgetting.’ I think it is high time to arrive at a truce by doing the only sensible thing: ‘…the past remains a contested matter in the Eritrean diaspora and seeking to reconcile the various memories would require some more discussion between the various camps. Most of the parties involved use the Internet or other platforms mainly to monologize. The question is ‘whether diaspora forums’ can really create a sort of transnational public space…This seems to be increasingly the case within the worldwide diaspora’ (Conrad).
One crucial and timely issue that we all can agree upon is that our country has been spiraling on a downward course of decay, destruction and self-mutilation and that it hinges on the verge of implosion; and what is manifestly evident is that the diseases that currently afflict our beloved country have accrued over many decades. And they are variable: hereditary, malignant, infectious, but mostly man made, all requiring utmost care and a combination of different tested approaches.
Neither our hopelessly fragmented and hyper-polarized political system nor our resurgent techno impressionable youth can profess to have a ready remedy. This mammoth task will even challenge the best among the best of leaders, and what we currently have are far from average. This work is going to require the collective and conscientious effort of each and every one of us.
SMTs and the virtual public sphere are specially placed to help us in our struggle. Through a focused and reasonable discourse they can have a cathartic effect on the past and thus helping us to reasonably deal with the re-surfaced demons (and angels) of that period of our history. Social media can also immeasurably support to sustain the nascent online activism, engage and mobilize the cynical and disengaged, bring closer the democratic forces, and reinvigorate and expedite the struggle for peace, freedom, dignity, justice, democracy, and development.
10 Ways SMTs can help Influence the Struggle for Democratic Change.
1. Prioritizing and Setting the Agenda for National Debate. Much has been written about our recent past and present. The aspiring need of the overarching majority is how to bring about change! SMTs can help up disentangle the frustratingly entwined past, present, and future. This will to a large degree depend on the wisdom, boldness, and leadership quality of our elite. It will require the willingness to show self-restraint, exercise self-responsibility, engaging in intensive interaction and communication, and setting an example by sharing this virtual space in the spirit of mutual security and common future.
2. Use Social Media to Coalesce the Resurgent Youth Activism. The youth of Eritrea precariously stand at a historical junction, that of the past, present, and future. They are not impaired by the added burden of historical luggage, but they do have an existential political and socio-economic stake in the future. Their fragmentation will not help the national cause. The current online activity, properly utilized, can greatly help the momentum for a united youth voice, thus giving it the necessary and crucial weight to pressurize the disjointed forces of the political opposition and encouraging the forces of change at home.
3. Using Social Media as ‘’Trust Filters’’ for Politicians. For many years now, we have been witnessing so many alignments and re-alignments, sporadic meetings and conferences, and pious declarations and press communiqués. SMTs can be effectively used to destroy or re-vamp the pervading system that props-up mediocre characters by bestowing on them high-sounding titles with vacuous responsibilities, so that they can go on pretending to be ‘’somebody’’ while delivering nothing. There is a critical need to institute a vetting system and a need to look for fresh blood of leadership with new ideas and values, and capacity for critical and rational thinking (and not just regurgitated nonsense!) Political leaders and aspirants should be persuaded to come forth and expound their ideas and beliefs publicly, intelligibly, coherently, reasonably in such a way that reflects our ethnic, religious, regional, etc. divides.
4. Use Social Media to Evaluate Effectiveness of Political Parties. In the absence of ‘’home-grown’’ opposition, we have now scores of political parties with questionable support base and effectiveness that are mainly out of sync with the majority. Taking care not to reduce debates to personal issues, leaders of these parties should be persuaded and encouraged to come forth, introduce themselves, make known their part agendas, and thus helping to generate interest and following at the grass-roots level.
5. Use Social Media to Reinforce, Strengthen, and Complement Existing Political Institutions. Open a regular forum for debate in the virtual space that can help political actors to exercise, develop, and share a set of accepted norms and behavior that will improve their democratic functioning.
6. Widen the public sphere. There is a great need to adapt social media to our pluralistic society, bring together the linguistic drift (Arab-Tigrgna), and raise the level of civic engagement and consciousness by engaging the watchful majority, including economic, and socio-cultural components of our society.
7. Use Social Media for Direct Mass Mobilization at Home. Adapt SMTs to the challenging situation at home. In his interview with awateteam, Daniel had said: ‘We needed a strategy to enable our people to exercise their rights to protest…the missing link…Arbi Harnet is, therefore, the building block of our long term objective. Communication channels, capacity building, solidarity, and empowerment is what we are injecting into our activism through these evenings of protest.’ There is a need to share experience and sustain and add new momentum by adapting new SMTs to what is already a successful campaign.
8. Establish Contacts with the large Refugee Community in the Sudan and Ethiopia. There is a huge largely forgotten refugee population in these two countries eking out a frustrating life of subsistence, and bringing this community into the virtual world will not only give it hope and recognition, but also help to energize and motivate this formidable force and facilitate its entry in the struggle for democratic struggle. This would require financing and assigning administrators in the different refugee camps.
9. Use Social Media to Intensify the Diplomatic Campaign. What was recently achieved in Canada is a great victory for our struggle. Those dedicated Eritreans who achieved this feat should be acknowledged and encouraged to share their experience.
10. Use Social Media for Regional Constructive Engagement. Our existential diversity should and must be managed without external interference, but responsible use of social media can also help dispel the recurring theme of suspicion and mistrust that prop up whenever one or more of our neighbors are mentioned (especially Ethiopia). Externalization and empty long-winded articles (e.g. the current series running at awate.com) will not solve our problem.
Food for Thought: Reining In Our Elephant
“Can we all get along?’’ This appeal was made by Rodney King, a black man who had been beaten nearly to death by Los Angeles police officers in 1992. He continued: ‘’Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.’’
In order to get along, we need to understand and acknowledge our human limitations. Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, writes in his book -The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion- that our mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider (1 %!) is our conscious reasoning and the elephant is the other 99% of mental process-the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior!
Understanding our intuitive behavior will greatly help us in improving our ‘conscious’ deliberations and discourse.
Thank you for your patience.