Julie Wangombe perfoms her poem, "A Poetic Reintroduction to Africa", at TED Talent Search.

“Self-censorship” for the Age of Social Media


Social media is fundamentally affecting individuals, communities, corporates and governments around the globe. It’s changing the nature of different kinds of relationships, and, to some extent, it’s changing us. Now, its potential, we already know, is remarkable. It can enhance public participation in national and international dialogue. It can ensure greater public input into matters of general public interest offering the marginalized, a voice and the disenfranchised, a choice. It can increase accountability—whether of governments, international agencies, non-governmental organizations, corporates or individuals by making them answerable in a way they once weren’t. It can accelerate the exchange of worthwhile ideas. It can connect individuals from around the world in ways that foster innovation and mentorship. And it can further the whole concept of harmonious global community by shedding light on common aspirations, goals, needs, challenges, perspectives—in short, our common humanity.

Social media is important. We know this. It is empowering. We know this too. It’s made brands, governments, media houses, and individuals sit up and pay attention to the (constructive) things that the world is saying and hopefully, they’re all trying to be better: to send more moral messages, create better products, ensure better service delivery, make amends when necessary, tell true stories and toe, or at least attempt to be seen as toeing, the line of justice. Great!

Yet while different organizations and institutions are clamoring to understand the in’s and out’s of social media and trying, hard, not to be caught flat-footed, is enough focus going into thinking through the other side of the story: the individual, everyday people who ever stand 140 characters away from instant fame or infamy? Who hold, in the palm of their hand, the power to create but are simultaneously a breathtakingly few key strokes away from self and/or societal destruction? Key strokes away from cyber-bullying inspired suicides, from breaking relational trust; from significantly undermining a brand; from compromising national security; from influencing crucial political decisions and; from adversely affecting economies? Power to the people, yes but can the people, be trusted?


I’d guess many of us went through that phase when we thought of life ‘in terms of tweetable moments’ * or thought about face book as our personal journal. Many of us went through that phase were our anger, hurt, frustration or lashing out were so easily expressed through this near to us avenue known as social media. Then, we grew up. Perhaps we realized that there was a level of effusiveness that could be unhealthy. Perhaps we saw that the passive-aggressiveness and approval dependence social media inspired in us, was a problem. Or perhaps we came to see the truth that sometimes, social media was not always the answer.

And because of how easy it is to tweet, or facebook, or instagram, this last part is something we need to understand better. Social media is not always the answer. It is not always the tool to reach for. Sometimes, instead of tweeting about the bad customer service in a good restaurant while you’re there, you need to find a more constructive avenue first- like speaking to management. Sometimes, the first call of action is not to tweet a problem, but to take information to people in a better position to solve it. And even when social media is a right tool, sometimes, re-tweeting a story, where facts have not been verified, is really not O.K. And doing it in the case of a politician, just because he’s a politician, doesn’t make it better. Sometimes a DM, is better than a tweet and a call is better than a DM and a tweet is less effective than a face book post. It’s called nuance.

And why am I saying this? Because now, more than ever before, we need to emphasize the need for social media users to act sensibly and responsibly. To ensure that the basic principles that would (or should) govern our day-to-day interactions are carried over to social media.

And we need to do this because it’s accountability, is two way.  It’s not just for corporates, but for clients. Not just for brands, but consumers. Not just for governments, but for citizens. Not just for employers,  but for employees. Not just for amorphous institutions, but for flesh-and-blood people. And in a virtually un-policed world where a wrong tweet, a wrongly worded message – can damage not just our own reputation, but our relationships, communities and companies – we, as individuals, need to appeal to some absolute truths and ethical standards that make self-censorship viable and to know that sometimes, we may have to lay down our right to freedom of speech – for a higher good.

* phrase originally from the poem ‘Be Present’ by American spoken word artist, Propaganda.