Social media often re-inforces power, rather than challenging it


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Despite utopian dreams of social media unending despotic regimes, political power is often re-inforced by control over these networks.

In mid-July Chad lifted its 16-month social media ban. This ended the longest social media blockage seen in any African country. The government argued that the lengthy ban was necessary for security reasons.

The Chadian case highlights the way social media has increasingly been framed as a threat, especially by authoritarian leaders. Since the beginning of 2019 at least nine other African countries have also experienced government ordered internet shutdowns.

A recently published volume jointly edited by us digs deeper into this pattern. We explored the various ways social media has been entangled with politics and security.

Social Media and Politics in Africa: Democracy, Censorship and Security includes cases from nine African countries.

The 18 contributors to the volume include academics in Africa, Europe, North America, and Australia. Journalists and practitioners in the field of international development also contributed.

Political leaders often view social media as a threat because it can provide the public with greater access to information.

It also has the potential to mobilise and challenge leadership. Some authors found ways in which digital platforms were creatively used to expand political participation.

But many authors found the opposite to be the case. In researching cases in Kenya, Stephanie Diepeveen and Alisha Patel demonstrated how social media contributed to reinforcing existing power structures and dominant narratives.

Similarly, a study by Jean-Benoît Falisse and Hugues Nkengurutse found that public political discussions on Facebook and Twitter in Burundi generally didn’t include ordinary citizens. Instead, they were dominated by a small number of elites who acted as brokers.

In recent years Africa has seen the world’s highest internet penetration growth rates. This means that we should expect social media to play an increasingly prominent role in politics and security on the continent.

This book helps us understand the diverse and complex ways social media is shaping political engagement.

Three chapters are devoted to social media and elections. In them, the authors show how social media helped develop spaces for engagement and debate.

The first, by us and Jamie Hitchen, found that WhatsApp was an especially important avenue for smaller political parties and new voters in Sierra Leone.

The two others – one on Senegal by Emily Riley, the other by researcher and lecturer Nkwachukwu Orji focusing on Nigeria – show the ways civil society organisations use social media in the hope of adding transparency to the electoral process.

Yet, these chapters each warn of the problems of ‘fake news’ on social media. For example, Orji cautions in his Nigerian study that the absence of a strategy to address misinformation can incite election-related violence.

In addition, many government attempts to limit social media occurred during election periods or at unanticipated moments of instability.

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The Insider

The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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