The impact of social media on political uprisings in …

As important as the rise of multi-party politics has been, the decade since the rise of social media began in Africa is driving even more transformations in the continent’s political arena.

Last April, before a sinister vote in parliament, the prime minister of the West African nation of Mali took to Twitter to deliver momentous news: the government has resigned!

In a matter of minutes, also on Twitter, the president of the country reported that he had accepted the resignation.

Much of this series of events was exceptional, except for the use of a social media platform.

A young man launches Twitter on a tablet in Cairo, Egypt. Reuters

In fact, the leaders of Mali joined the long list of political leaders in Africa who, in recent years, have used social media platforms as the main channel of information about their actions. Whereas in the past politicians used to hold press conferences or appear on state broadcasters to share their plans, in modern African politics, Twitter and Facebook are the main platforms for key political moments.

Africa has an estimated 1.3 billion people. Less than 500 million of them are internet users. and about 200 million use social media; More and more to participate in political debates.

The trend on the continent started almost a decade ago, as the continent experienced a rise of social media. In September 2010, Goodluck Jonathan, then President-in-Office of Nigeria, He announced his candidacy on Facebook, reaching hundreds of thousands in minutes..

At the time of his announcement, President Jonathan, in just a few months, had amassed a Facebook after the combined count of the UK Prime Minister, the German Chancellor and the President of South Africa. CNN had dubbed him “the president of Facebook.”

Social media has largely been seen as the engine that fueled weeks of protests that toppled the government in Tunisia in January 2011 and launched the arab spring.

The good…

Over the past decade, candidates for public office, political parties, election commissions, and political activists and commentators have used social media platforms to interact with voters, seek their votes, and hold the political conversation. The advantages have been many:

Larger and faster audiences – Through Facebook and Twitter, candidates and public office holders across Africa have come to enjoy a broader and faster reach. Audiences are literally at your fingertips.

Last year, during presidential and legislative elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country larger than Western Europe, social media platforms proved to be the most practical way to reach more than 40 million voters.

Arguably, without Twitter and Facebook, reaching the millions of people they were able to connect with would have been impossible.

Direct interactions – For the majority of candidates for public office in Africa, social media platforms have facilitated interaction with voters.

In countries where state media, often the only ones with the largest audiences, have generally favored the ruling party’s candidates, for the other candidates, social media became the main conduit and often , the most efficient.

Its success is such that before the elections, discussions about equitable access to public media have been debated when opposition candidates reject state media and dedicate resources to their social media operations.

Platforms for activism. – In addition to politicians, civil society activists have been using social media platforms to campaign on critical political issues. Across the continent, they have exposed human rights violations that would otherwise have remained hidden.

On Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, they have held important political conversations at the forefront. In North Africa, the Arab Spring was stimulated, in large part, by the use of these platforms.

Social media played a role in every political uprising of the last decade in Africa.

In fact, in 2015, a report analyzed 1.6 billion tweets in Africa and found that Politics-related tweets increased and outpaced political tweet rates in the United States and the United Kingdom..

The bad…

As more people in Africa gain access to the Internet each year, and the majority use their access to social media, generally from mobile phones, the main obstacles contribute to hindering their political participation on those platforms.

A Sudanese man holds his phone with restricted access to the internet on social media.  Image: Reuters

A Sudanese man holds his phone with restricted access to the internet on social media. Image: Reuters

High cost of internet access – By almost all measures, it costs more to access the Internet in most of Africa than in any other part of the world.

A recent report Sets the price of monthly broadband internet. in Burkina Faso, a West African country, with almost $ 1,000. The same service is available in Iran for less than $ 6.

Similarly, urban areas in Africa, according to studies, have greater access to the Internet than rural areas. Therefore, some have pointed out that the use of social media in politics, in effect, widen the democratic gap between those with financial means and others, as well as between those who live in cities and those who live in rural areas.

Internet taxesIn Benin, Tanzania and Kenya, plans to introduce internet taxes (officially to combat criminal activity online) have added to fears that many more people would be excluded from the political conversation online. In Uganda, such plans have been enacted.

The ugly one…

Human rights advocates note that, in response to the changing political dynamics created by the use of social media in Africa, several governments are taking a more radical approach.

Surveillance and repression. – As social media has become one of the most effective tools of political mobilization, authorities in several African countries have turned to increasing surveillance of online communications, detections of online critics, complete shutdown and the removal of platforms.

In Nigeria, noted the State of Internet Freedom, between 2016 and 2018 there was a significant increase in the number of online critics of the arrested government.

Online hate speech and misinformation. – It has been said that social networks value the emotional over reason. “The more visceral the message is, the faster it circulates”, a writer for the United States website Politician Once rightly pointed out.

In African politics, evaluation also holds. On social media, hate speech and political disinformation have found new platforms.

Whats Next?

Since the wave of independence in the 1960s, few events have so profoundly transformed the political landscape of Africa.

In the 1990s, The rise of multi-party elections opened an era of competitive politics. leading to an unprecedented number of electoral contests. Never before have so many people in Africa had a say in choosing their leaders. The trend persists to this day.

As important as the rise of multi-party politics has been, the decade since the rise of social media began in Africa is driving even more transformations in the continent’s political arena.

Social media platforms have renewed political engagement, revived critical conversations, and fueled revolutions. As internet penetration in Africa continues to grow, it is obvious that the continent’s political landscape must be prepared for further disruption.

This article was originally published by the Observer Research Foundation, an India-based think tank.

André-Michel Essoungou has written extensively on the political use of social media in Africa over the past decade. He works for the United Nations.

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