Social media and the political sphere in Africa: reshaping democratic engagement?
Date and Start Time 29 June, 2017 at 14:00
While social media is increasingly celebrated as a platform for democratic participation in Africa, some governments are clamping down on the technology to curtail freedoms. The panel considers the role of social media in reshaping political engagement on the continent.
The huge growth in smartphone sales in Africa has seen a rapid uptake in subscribers to social media platforms. The technology enables people across the continent to share their ideas about politics with a wider audience than ever before both domestically and internationally. Activists and governments alike have turned to social media as a new form of political mobilization. Yet while frequently celebrated as a liberation technology, some governments are increasingly clamping down on social media to curtail freedoms. Legislators have sought to introduce laws to regulate social media use, and in the most extreme cases, governments have simply shut down the technology that enables communication via social media.
Despite the rapid increase in social media uptake, it has been disproportionally concentrated in urban areas. This raises critical debates as to whether social media is widening or bridging the democratic digital divide within and between countries.
This panel considers the role of social media in reshaping political engagement on the African continent. It welcomes topics concerning social media and: accountability, diasporic engagement, elections, protest movements, regulation, security, and surveillance. While focussed on political issues in Africa, the panel is open to a variety of disciplines or interdisciplinary approaches.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
Policing social media in Tanzania: cybercrime and the politics of development
In Tanzania politicised policing practices are being extended into online spaces through the construction of political dissent voiced on social media as ‘cybercrime’. This forms part of a broader political debate about development, in which social media is often cast as an enemy of progress.
This paper outlines the extension of politicised policing practices into online spaces through the construction of political dissent as 'cybercrime' in Tanzania. Growing social media use over recent years has had a significant impact on political campaigning and dissemination of news, particularly in urban areas. However, through a controversial Cybercrimes Act and related legislation the government has sought to restrict potentially damaging online debate, giving the police wide-ranging powers to investigate online communication. Those convicted of online offences to date include social media users accused of 'insulting' the President and the police over Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube, and others deemed to have shared 'false' information online. The paper locates these events within broader contestations of 'development' and its political implications in Tanzania. Firstly, since general elections in 2015, political opposition, both on- and offline, has frequently been cast as an unwelcome distraction from the pursuit of national development and has met with repressive police responses. Secondly, for national and local government officials, social media is not typically discussed in terms of its potential to enhance citizen participation and political engagement. In contrast, in keeping with a history of paternalistic and top down approaches to development, it is argued that people must be taught how to use their phones 'correctly' in order to avoid perpetrating cybercrime.
The Virtual Reality of Physical Security: Linkages between Social Media and Policing in Urban Africa - a case study on Nairobi, Kenya
We examine how tweets with #KasaraniConcentrationCamp became a counter-narrative to the Kenyan government’s anti-terrorism detentions of ethnic Somalis in Kenya in 2014. We synthesize literature on urban Africa, security provision and social media, plus an original database of approximately 3,600 tweets.
User generated content on social media is a growing component of the production of digital information and an increasingly important site for performing politics. Yet, most Political Science literature on social media is limited in two significant ways. First, it tends to focus on traditional state, agency or organizational actors, while at the same time overlooking every day, "under the radar", communication that might illuminate alternate or informal sites of political practice. At the same time, mainstream Political Science research on social media use bypasses the Global South. In this paper, we seek to address these deficiencies by examining how social media offers insights into informalized constructions of "security" as both a concept and a practice in urban Africa. To do so, we examine #KasaraniConcentrationCamp, a hashtag with origins in the 2014 detention of Somalis and Somali-Kenyans in Nairobi, Kenya that were justified as necessary anti-terrorism efforts against Al-Shabaab by the Kenyan government. Our adopted approach is not about measuring the impact of the hashtag, but instead is concerned with understanding how Twitter can be a site where communicative actions are both a consequence of, and interact with, informality, inequality and infrastructure(s). We conclude that social media usage can produce counter-narratives about everyday security and counter-terrorism policing practices in Nairobi and perhaps elsewhere in urban Africa. The paper's argument is based on a synthesis of literature on urban Africa, security provision and social media, as well as an original database of approximately 3,600 tweets containing the hashtag, #KasaraniConcentrationCamp.
This paper was developed in collaboration with Stephen Marr.
Images of the KDF in Somalia: Al Shabaab, Kenyans on Twitter and Propaganda of the Dead
This paper discusses the circulation on social media of images showing casualties of an Al Shabaab attack on KDF troops in Somalia. It informs debates about access to information and the regulation of social media during times of insecurity.
In January 2016 Al Shabaab launched a deadly assault on an AMISOM base garrisoned by Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) troops in El Adde, Somalia. The bloodiest defeat for the KDF since independence, the attack supplied the perpetrators with much new visual material for their propaganda efforts. Drawing on interviews and focus groups conducted in Kenya shortly after the attack, this paper discusses various responses to Al Shabaab's use of the internet to publish brutal images taken from the scene. It outlines the Government of Kenya's attempts to restrict the circulation of the photographs, and points to how this was made more difficult not only by the widespread use of social media, but by the highly seductive power of visual imagery - a key tool employed by both sides in an online battle for the hearts and minds of a Kenyan population increasingly informed by 'news' as presented on social media. This case addresses issues relating to the general public's access to security-related information, and informs debates about the regulation of social media during times of insecurity.
Water wars in social media. Mapping online debates on the Nile in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt
The paper comparatively analyses how contestation, nationalism, and cooperation play out in social media among online communities writing about the Nile in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt.
Development, climate change, and regional hegemony are all issues surroundings the use and transformation of the Nile. While risks of regional conflicts and opportunities for cooperation are being increasingly studied, the analysis of how individuals from different countries engage with them has been lacking. By analysing online debates on the Nile in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, this paper seeks to offer a unique contribution not only to a better understanding of Nile controversies, but to how different actors - governments, diasporas, scientists, as well as ordinary social media users - employ social media to further specific political agendas.
The paper builds on methods for data collection and analysis that have been previously tested to map online debates and conflicts in Ethiopia (Gagliardone et al., 2016), to comparatively examine three interrelated issues:
- Under which conditions social media amplify inflammatory speech and exacerbate transboundary water conflicts? Or conversely, when do they promote cooperation messages and facilitate constructive engagements?
- Do social media offer a space to express dissent and alternative positions compared to official government propaganda, in the context of three countries where traditional journalists and media do not enjoy full freedom of expression? And how are governments seeking to extend their control over sensitive and highly securitized issues such as Nile water distribution?
- How techno-scientific issues are presented and debated in social media? Do social media facilitate the circulation of scientific research and knowledge or rather to they contribute to delegitimise expert's authority?
A "hotbed" of digital empowerment? Media criticism in Kenya between playful engagement and co-option
Our study revisits assumptions of the techno-optimist discourse surrounding Kenyans’ use of Twitter to challenge misrepresentation of their country. Our content analysis shows how the #SomeOneTellCNN campaign organically aligns itself with both local political interests and global corporate ones.
Twitter is often celebrated as a tool allowing "African" voices to be heard in the public sphere on issues historically dominated by Western voices and institutions. Kenyan twitterati have notably become vocal on issues of misrepresentation of their country in Western media. Labelling this a form of "playful engagement", Tully and Ekdale (2014) argue that humour is a key discursive feature of this digital criticism. Our study proposes to revisit some assumptions of this techno-optimist discourse by analysing the Twitter response to a CNN story labelling Kenya a "hotbed of terror" ahead of Obama's visit to Kenya in 2015. Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) rallied behind the hashtag #SomeOneTellCNN to call out the "negativity" and "sensationalism" of CNN's story. We conduct a content analysis of 269 prominent tweets, and their visual and linguistic features including the most popular images, the alternative representations of Kenya, the tone of the tweets, the most popular/visible voices, and the proportion of tweets engaging alternative local issues. We show that 1) humour was not the dominant tone of the campaign; 2) the collective power of the campaign was not used to raise the global media profile of other, more locally relevant social issues, and 3) the self-image of Kenya recreated was in line with a state project of nation branding and with a broader discourse of Africa Rising. Beyond the playful engagement thesis, we show how the #SomeOneTellCNN campaign organically aligns itself with a set of local political interests, as well as more global, corporate ones.
Digital apartheid or digital democracy? The presence of "#FeesMustFall" and "Service Delivery Protests" in the streets and on the net of Cape Town
This research seeks to show, how social media in the form of online videos about protests affect and are affected by the specific context from which they merge by examining the cases of “#FeesMustFall” and “Service Delivery” protests in Cape Town.
The translation of protests on the streets into audiovisual artifacts like YouTube videos about protests is by no means self-explanatory. It involves a variety of practices that potentially re-configure as well as re-inscribe power relations. The paper "Digital apartheid or digital democracy?" takes up a long-standing debate about how digitalization opens up or closes down democratic possibilities. I do so by inserting this discussion into the specific context of contemporary urban street protests in Cape Town.
Based on a theoretical framework inspired by Henri Lefebvre, I argue that we need to understand the digitalization of urban street protests as well as the urbanization of digital networks as a dialectical process playing out in the specificity of (urban) contexts. Based on qualitative interviews with activists in Cape Town, I will look at the cases of the "#FeesMustFall" protests by students from the University of Cape Town and contrast them with "Service Delivery Protests" by residents from the Cape Flats. In doing so I make visible the specificities and invisible inequalities that affect what videos of protests appear online and how #FeesMustFall has created its massive online presence. Besides "digital divides" being re-inscribed in physical geographies throughout the post-apartheid city, algorithmic mechanisms such as personalization re-enforce tendencies of segregation.
Therefore I ask what potential emancipatory practices like activists filming and sharing their own images of protests have. Is Cape Town seeing the coming of digital democratization or digital apartheid?
#KalyppoChallenge & #Kalyselfie: On Digital Political Engagement in Contemporary Ghana's Democracy
The cemented practice of citizen’s engagement with visualized political issues through social media in Ghana affords us the opportunity to concretely understand the dynamics of political public issues and political publics in Ghanaian politics.
Beyond traditionally recognized arenas of political engagement, such as television, radio and newspapers, one observes in contemporary Ghanaian democratic politics, a 'new' and cemented practice of citizen's engagement with political issues via digital public spaces. Specifically, through social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp, citizens share politically saturated images like caricatures, cartoons and photoshopped images. Such images, visualizing circulating topical issues, not only aims to sensitize Ghanaians to topical issues and provide alternative perspectives to dominant topics but also provide grounds for vigorous political debates on such stories within Ghanaian social media public sphere. In this paper, I am motivated by a material approach to politics which takes the digital sphere and political images as areas that cumulatively allows "us to grasp the very concrete ways through which [political] "public" issues and "publics" emerge" (Meyer 2015: 5). I examine some of the thematic concerns of some of these shared caricatures (for example, the global practice of plagiarized political speeches), cartoons (for instance, election malpractices and associated violence), photoshopped images (for example, consequences of losing political elections). In doing so, the goal is to demonstrate how the images provide alternative popular realizations of topical issues which inform people and democratize the sources through which Ghanaian citizens access information. Second, the discussion is to show how these social media sites widen the political arenas via which people enact their citizenship by partaking in key national and international discussions.
How Digital Media Are Influencing Politics and Political Spaces in Kenya
In western discourse, digital media in African countries are often associated with so-called digital divide or democratic hopes. Because of increase of smartphones, talks about digital divide are out-dated. Because governments are trying to block the Internet, democratic hopes seem to be questioned.
Through technical improvements and cheaper access digital media are playing a crucial role in the Kenyan society. For many years mainly Internet cafés have been the most important source for Internet access. Nowadays there are more and more people who own a private Computer/Laptop or use their working place to access the Internet. But the most important change is the rapid spread of mobile use of the Internet in Kenya. In my presentation I want to show how digital media are appropriated in the Kenyan political discourse and how Kenyans used digital media for political discussions during the elections of 2013. The research is based on a 11-month field-work in Nairobi, Kenya.
The third Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki started to introduce the idea of the digitization of Kenyan society in 2005. Current president Uhuru Kenyatta used the idea of "being digital" during his election campaign 2013. During so-called post election violence in 2007/2008 over 1100 people were killed. Everybody was watching the election 2013 with worries and tension. During the election 2013 social media platform Facebook was used for political discussions when all other media were more or less under governmental control. Even though Kenyan government also tried to control the Internet, especially social media as Facebook and Twitter, users developed ways how to bypass the online-tracking of the government.
Mobilising diasporic narratives. Social media use by Malian-diasporic agents and its potential for contesting socio-political exclusion
My contribution explores potentials for political mobilisation that emerge from the entangle-ment of physical and mediated mobilities in the formation of subjects. Focussing on construc-tions of belonging, I trace discursive practices Malian-diasporic agents perform through their social media use.
In his influential book 'Mobilities', John Urry emphasises that not just physical movement of people and goods shape our contemporary societies, but also virtual, imaginative and communicational mobilities (Urry, 2007). In my contribution, I ask which potentials for political mobilisation emerge from these entangled mobilities when they are performed in everyday social media use - with political mobilisation understood as the formation of subjects through constructions of belonging.
I focus on a Malian-diasporic context since mobility counts as a major demographic phenomenon in Malian society (Bocquier & Diarra, 1999). Today, estimations range from 10 to more than 30 percent of its population living abroad (Whitehouse, 2012), forming an important diasporic network whose members sustain connections through digital communication (see e.g. Damome, 2011; Galtier, 2011). In addition, agents in and from Mali experience multiple exclusions resulting from their positioning in the Global South (Scholz, 2005). Therefore, it is especially interesting to see if and how they use social media to articulate political subject positions and, thereby, challenge power inequalities.
Using the concept of belonging by Nira Yuval-Davis (2006), I will illustrate how users visiting the Facebook page of a Malian-diasporic news portal perform diverse discursive practices: Their profile information and their engagement with different topics unveil how they construct their digital social positions - with a special focus on their diverse locations and mobilities - as well as their identity narratives and value systems. My aim is to detect moments of contestation and resistance to hegemonic power inequalities that emerge in these constructions.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.