Author: Brooks Marmon
Site of publication: Democracy in Africa
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: May 7th, 2017
THE EXPLOSIVE RISE in social media use across Africa – 2016 saw a 50% increase – is redefining how citizens, governments, and corporations relate to each other. The opportunities and risks presented by this dynamic growth were the subject of the ‘Beyond the Hashtag: Social Media in Africa’ symposium held on April 26 – 27 at the University of Edinburgh. The diverse array of papers presented indicated that the implications of social media use for democracy in Africa are promising and multi-faceted, yet subject to a number of constraints.
Even relatively casual observers of African politics will have noted that in the aftermath of the Arab awakening, the internet and social media have become the next frontier for the contestation of political power and democratic expression. In recent months, both Cameroon and Ethiopia made headlines after shutting down the internet in regions that were experiencing protests against discriminatory government practices.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the authorities sought to coordinate restricted access to a variety of social media platforms amidst planned protests marking President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step aside following the end of his elected mandate in December last year.
While the conference sought to explore trends and developments beyond the hashtag, the transformative impact of digital protests cannot be ignored. #RhodesMustFall drove protests at the University of Cape Town which resulted in the removal of a statue of the 19th century politician and mining magnate, leading to similar protests in the United Kingdom and significantly greater confrontation amidst the #FeesMustFall campaign that subsequently spread across South African university campuses.
A key takeaway was the tension between the successful application of social media to strengthen advocacy for democracy in Africa and the challenge of ensuring that social media users are genuinely digitally empowered. Much of the broader debate about the prospects for social media use in Africa as a tool to strengthen democracy focuses on strategies to develop infrastructure and increase internet penetration and the prevalence of social media use, underlying inherent assumptions of its virtue.
A recurring theme at the Symposium was the extent to which social media users interact with those of similar opinions, mirroring offline tendencies of social interaction. Thus, despite the tendency of Africans to use social media for political debate significantly more frequently than many of their western counterparts, increased social media use may not necessarily in itself be the answer to democratization.
While symposium participants noted that social media discourse is generally more anti-government than mainstream media, speakers were at pains to note that this difference was not overwhelming. Authoritarian countries have deployed social media strategies to shore up support. In the case of Burundi, the opposition seems to have recognized the importance of these efforts as Willy Nyamitwe, a leading pro-government social media personality, survived an assassination attempt last year. The alleged leaders of ZANU-PF’s G40 political faction in Zimbabwe, Saviour Kasukuwere and Jonathan Moyo, are some of that nation’s most visible political presences on Twitter. Social media use, like print and radio before it, is not inherently confined to promoting democratic practice.
#RhodesMustFall drove protests at the University of Cape Town which resulted in the removal of a statue of the 19th century politician and mining magnate, leading to similar protests in the United Kingdom and significantly greater confrontation amidst the #FeesMustFall campaign that subsequently spread across South African university campuses
Fisher pointed to a troubling shift where interventions in the sphere of information technology for development that were previously oriented to merely strengthening access to information are now shifting to a focus that relies upon the quality and quantity of specific information others hold about individuals and groups. The drive for massive amounts of data, even around initiatives seemingly as innocuous as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, may increasingly lead to violations of the right to privacy as social media data becomes an importance source of information to populate highly detailed targets and indicators for both corporate and non-profit actors.
Despite these constraints, social media is serving as a positive force for social change. The symposium highlighted the success of Kenyan social media users in particular. The #SomeOneTellCNN movement secured an apology from the US news network for its alarmist characterization of the security situation in that country. Kenyans on Twitter also successfully mobilized to counter attempts by their government to censor the music video for the Same Love Remix by Art Attack, a gay rights anthem.
However, the research points to an acute need for a more nuanced understanding of the role of social media in shaping democratic discourse. Opportunities are accompanied by risks, and just as citizens are using social media to proactively shape more open, democratic societies, governments and corporate interests are plotting to co-opt the new media in much the same way traditional print and audio broadcasters were historically manipulated to serve partisan interests.
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