How a coup d’état drove a scholar to social media

Call me a curmudgeon, but I had never really understood the value of social media. I didn’t see the point of mundane tweets and posts on the lives of the glitterati, or the need to share personal views in a public medium. A coup d’état in Mali in March of 2012 rocked this perception and led me to view social media in a different light. No longer would I perceive these forums as vapid echo chambers, but as critical spaces for news, dialogue and even social change.

I’ve been working and researching in Mali for over 25 years now. Most of my scholarship deals with agriculture, food security and resource management issues. For years I collected information from traditional sources: my own field work first and foremost, but also scholarly publications and traditional news reports. Until recently, Mali almost never made the international press, making the need to speedily access news seemingly unnecessary.

The pace and fluidity of events in Mali since March 2012 would change the way I operate as a scholar.

A coup d’état was staged by disgruntled military personnel that month, putting an end to nearly 20 years of procedural democracy. The weak state apparatus then lost control of the northern two-thirds of the country to a variety of rebel groups with different agendas, including Tuareg separatists, Islamists, drug traffickers, and al-Qaeda affiliates. With rebel groups pushing south in January 2013, the French military intervened, eventually reclaiming the major northern cities for the Malian state. Elections were held this past July/August, followed most recently by continuing attacks in the North and the government’s detention of the coup leader, Amadou Sanogo.

I am a geographer, and not a scholar of politics, but the unrest of 2012-2013 was impacting the issues I study, most notably food security in the northern parts of the country. I also analyze natural resource management and agricultural issues within a broader political economic context, making an understanding of policy and politics essential. Finally, I have a non-ivory tower tendency to share what I learn with policy and lay audiences – often expressed in pieces I write for Al Jazeera, the New York Times or the Washington Post. As such, the policy orientation of my applied writing doubles the need to stay on top of politics.

To make a long story short, in early 2012 I found that my shunning of social media was limiting my ability to exchange ideas with others who knew the country well, and impacting my capacity to stay abreast of the quickly evolving post-coup situation in Mali. To complicate matters further, I was based in Botswana that year and didn’t have as ready access to information. Finally, because of security concerns, and the fact that I had described the coup leader as a ‘thug’ in one of my columns, I knew it just wasn’t wise to travel to Mali during the peak of the unrest.

I initially turned to email listservs as a place to exchange information and ideas about Mali. Alas, I quickly learned that these had become passé; they were the provincial backwaters of the modern digital era. Some moderated email forums were slow and clunky, while others were bereft of chatter as many users had long since moved on.

Facebook, twitter and the blogosphere were the places where the most current information could be found, the most intense debates had, and some of the more interesting and novel perspectives aired. I was neither the first nor the last, but, catalyzed by crisis, was part of a mass migration of Mali and West Africanist scholars to social media.

Several facebook groups devoted exclusively to Mali, as well numerous tweeter feeds, served as excellent curations of stories from a vast array of traditional news outlets, e.g., All Mali, All the Time or or Americans and Friends of Mali. Many news reporters (see Peter Tinti or Bate Felix) would also tweet information between stories – allowing for an unprecedented exchange of ideas between some in the media and Mali scholars. Others took to the blogosphere where timely insights on the unfolding crisis could be aired without the interference of gatekeepers. See, for example, anthropologist Bruce Whitehouse’s Bridges from Bamako blog, or those of Boukary Konaté and Tommy Miles. This medium changed who we interacted with, often broadening the community, and increased the frequency with which we interacted with each other.

Some scholars and traditional journalists bemoan the rise of social media, decrying a loss of quality control. To be sure, there is a lot of misinformation, rumor and innuendo circulating in the various dimensions of social media. Clearly, now more than ever, consumers of information need the skills and background to critically evaluate what they are reading and its sources.

But the pros outweigh the cons when we leverage the strengths of social media. Despite fears to the contrary, traditional news sources and scholarly publications remain the primary sources of content for many social media exchanges. Add to this mix the more timely blogs by established scholars, as well as the critical dialogue capacity provided by social media, and you have a winning combination.

Never before have scholars, journalists and policymakers been in such active dialogue, never before have the barriers between these separate professional communities been so porous. Many of the major political candidates in Mali’s election this summer had their own Twitter feeds. Even the Malian presidency has its own Twitter account manned by tech savvy Malian media relations staff. More importantly, the nature of tweets exchanged suggests that there is a growing transnational space interested in Malian politics and affairs.

Mali clearly has many problems that lie ahead of it, most notably the simmering situation in the north of the country that has yet to be resolved. I, like others, am deeply troubled by the intolerance articulated on both sides of the divide and by emerging news of past atrocities committed over the past two years.

But I see a new interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral, transnational and inter-ethnic community emerging in the social media sphere which has the ability to influence thinking amongst Malian elites and within the Malian political sphere. While I tend to be suspicious of the ability of technology to solve social ills, and I understand that social media is largely restricted to privileged Africans, I do find hope in this new space for exchange. Call me an optimist, but my hope is that this space will create an opening for, and foster a much needed dialogue on, reconciliation.

Photo by Boukary Konaté.

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