A TOOL FOR POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT
Social media platforms can increase political participation by making it possible for ordinary citizens to share their views. All you need is internet access and you’re ready to go. Twitter has been a particularly important social media platform for politics because it is easily accessible through a mobile phone.
The power of social media to give a voice to the people and promote democracy was also proven in 2011 when it toppled the Tunisian government and launched the Arab Spring (a series of pro-democracy uprisings which spread across the Islamic world). This was because social media makes it easier for people to organise protests and for a large number of people to share their common views, connecting people who might never normally meet. For example, the grassroots #ThisFlag campaign successfully removed Robert Mugabe from power in Zimbabwe, as did the #ZumaMustFall movement in South Africa.
A THREAT TO GOVERNMENTS?
Why have some African governments viewed social media as a threat, causing them to block their citizens from using it? Social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter provide a new space for discussion and makes it much easier for people to communicate with each other, and quickly. Internet access also means greater public access to information. News can be shared with thousands if not millions of people in the space of a few hours. Governments are suspicious of social media as it could be used to spread information that the government does not want to be shared or opinions that criticise government actions.
KENYA: LEADING SOCIAL MEDIA USE IN AFRICA
Kenya is taking the lead as the African country with the greatest number of social media users. Many have started to call Kenya the “Silicon Savannah”, comparing it to the Silicon Valley in California which has become a global centre for technology and social media. Since internet access first became introduced to Kenya in the 1990s, its use has grown enormously.
The majority of Kenyans have access via mobile phones. WhatsApp and Facebook are the most popular platforms and the most common social media users are 21-35 year-olds, spending an average of 3 hours online per day. Their main motivations for using social media are news, politics and entertainment.
Many Kenyans have also taken to social media to challenge misrepresentations of Kenya by the international media. For example,
THE DANGERS OF SOCIAL MEDIA
While many have emphasised the benefits that social media has to offer, others have pointed out that it also has a dark side.
Many have blamed social media for the spread of ‘fake news’, meaning incorrect information. For example, Tanzania has made it illegal to share false information online as part of its cybersecurity (online security) laws.
Social media platforms create communities and direct you to the information it thinks you will be interested in. This can be dangerous when a person is targeted by a terrorist group, for example, as extreme ideas can become normalised through the creation of what are called “echo chambers”. Echo chambers are online spaces where only one set of ideas are expressed, leading members of this community to believe that opinions expressed within this group are the only and the ‘right’ ideas to have.
As the number of social media users in Africa continues to grow and social media platforms start to play a bigger role in everyday life across Africa, its importance in politics will become unavoidable. Social media has enormous potential to give ordinary people a political voice, increase transparency, promote democracy and provide people with new solutions for everyday problems. However, social media also comes with its risks. It is difficult to regulate what happens online, and social media platforms can also be used by groups with bad intentions to manipulate vulnerable people. We should embrace the digital age, however, it is important to raise awareness of the risks that come with online platforms.