Wole Soyinka does not tweet or Facebook, and yet still finds quotes and posts attributed to him all over the internet. The chaos the internet has brought is both a source of creative expression and political oppression, he says.
At 83, Africa’s first Nobel laureate for literature, has seen just how information can be distorted by political power. He’s fled between continents for decades now, and his newest home will be Johannesburg, where he moved after president Donald Trump came to power. As he relocated yet again, Soyinka says he already knew the “horror” that would come with Trump.
This week, as Google, Facebook and Twitter testify as part of an investigation into how the US election may have been manipulated by Russia, may seem like vindication to Soyinka.
“Fake news is a permanent weaponry of power,” he said in an interview after delivering a lecture on humanities and technology Liberty Vuka Knowledge Summit on Nov. 1. “The agenda behind inserting fake news is to confuse society.”
The US is not alone of course, many countries across the world are seeing that open social media platforms are being misused to drive political discourse and deepen divisions. In Africa, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has been a dangerous tool of political operatives to spread misinformation during elections. But WhatsApp has also been a censorship victim of governments worried about grassroots opposition organization.
“We shouldn’t be naive to think that power will allow the maximal use of technology, there will always be notions raised against it,” said the man who once hijacked a radio station in 1965. “Unfortunately the democratization of technology has at times given power to the wrong people.”
For Soyinka, today, Trump is one of those people. After more than 20 years spent living in the US, Soyinka “threw away” his green card after the 2016 election. As a young writer, Soyinka was accused by the Nigerian government of being a spy for Biafra, the breakaway state that was crushed in Nigeria’s civil war.
He was imprisoned without trial for two years and held in solitary confinement, an internment that led to the searing work The Man Died: Prison Notes. Years later, Soyinka was forced to flee Nigeria in 1994 for speaking out against the military rule of Sani Abacha.
The power of the internet may not necessarily bring an imbalance. If anything, it can help unlock the creativity of a new generation of storytellers.
“My interest in these innovations, however, is limited to the partnership of technology in the freeing or freezing of the imaginative function,” he told the audience.
An avid proponent of pen and paper, Soyinka delivered a lecture from a stack of notes. The author owns a Kindle, but his interest in e-books ends in royalties afforded to him, he admits. The man whose plays and poetry captured the disappointing ironies of post-colonial Africa is unlikely to record his thoughts on an Apple watch, but he is optimistic about technology in the hands of the next generation.
“The internet has seen a rise in reactionary and often distorted news,” he says. “On the other hand, it has also given a voice to the voiceless when in the right hands and addressed to the appropriate audience.”