Will social media influence African elections?

Decision Africa app to provide market data and analysis for upcoming Nigeria elections
Decision Africa app to provide market data and analysis for upcoming Nigeria elections. (Image source: eruditiononline.co.uk/)

Technology, particularly mobile and social media, is poised to make a signficant impact on up and coming elections in Africa. (Image source: eruditiononline.co.uk/)
Technology, particularly mobile and social media, is poised to make a signficant impact on up and coming elections in Africa. (Image source: eruditiononline.co.uk/)

In 2013 a number of election processes took place in key countries in Africa, including Kenya, Mali and Zimbabwe, and affirmed the role that technology – specifically social media and mobile infrastructure – plays in these political processes. Technology has long been positioned to facilitate communication between a government and its citizens, holding the powers that be to account and serving as a channel to engage in debate and discussion. Today, the role of technology in elections has grown and social media channels are being used by political parties and their representatives to engage the electorate.

The actual results of Zimbabwe’s July/August 2013 General Elections aside, it was the undeniable influence of anonymous social media icon and commentator ‘Baba Jukwa’ that grabbed headlines.

In August the Baba Jukwa Facebook page had over 300 000 followers and continued to lead details on the activities of the Zimbabwean government (with contact numbers of officials!). One analyst said of the social media maverick “Baba Jukwa is just one manifestation of a silent revolution that is taking place…”

An article penned by Yu-Shan Wu, researcher at SAIIA’s Global Powers and Africa Programme, and Catherine Grant Makokera, Head of SAIIA’s Economic Diplomacy Programme, stated that “Social media, as a space for political deliberation, is most acute in places where few other spaces for open debate exist. During the Arab Spring, the social media became a vital tool to breaking psychological barriers, as users shared information and at times organised real protests in a short space of time. Similarly Zimbabweans (including the diaspora) have utilised the Baba Jukwa Facebook page for information and updates, to retrieve links to check their voter registration status and to write comments that encourage each other to vote. Many are expected to follow the elections today in Zimbabwe via Baba Jukwa.”

On the Eastern side of the continent and in the run up to Kenya’s General Election in March 2013, and the country’s first presidential election since 2007, numerous media reports surfaced about concern over the use of social media to disseminate hate speech.

The online community was never far from monitoring developments and in February online focused news agency Storyful and Google combined expertise to launch a Kenyan elections channel on YouTube.

At the time Google Policy Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, Ory Okolloh said, “Access has always been a primary focus for Google and all our initiatives around the elections are aimed at organizing information to make it easy to reach. Through the launch of the YouTube channel, Kenyans will now be able to follow the latest news and trends on the political scene, and engage with each other. Information drives the decisions we make on a day-to-day basis, and we remain committed to and are keen on sharing as much of it as possible with Kenyans.”

Looking ahead

Perhaps the most obvious example of an up-coming Africa election – and one that is likely to attract widespread interest on the continent and internationally, is that of South Africa.

According to the country’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) no date has yet been officially announced for the country’s forthcoming National and Provincial Elections 2014 and social media sites Facebook and Twitter have been put forward by the IEC as channels to acquire more information and updates about the process.

Social media strategists and experts have outlined why technology is expected to play a key role.

Alex Molteno, National and Provincial Social Media Manager for South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (DA) party concurs with the notion that the internet and social media are key influences but adds that it is important to distinguish the influence these resources have in emerging and developed societies.

“Obviously, within first world countries the internet and people that are on the internet would play the greatest role within the election process. Within less developed countries, the internet would play a lesser role… so if you were to compare South Africa to say, for example, the United States, the internet would play a greater role in the election process than it would in South Africa,” he says.

“Within the African context, it would not be advisable to neglect the influence of social media during the election or democratic process, because there are several million people on various social platforms within South Africa… and if any political party were not to communicate with those people, they would be doing themselves a disservice,” Molteno adds.

Asked about the additional role that technology could serve in terms of security and safeguarding the integrity of the process, Molteno explained that from a data storage, voter statistic and related efficiency point of view, technology does assist – but not directly with the actual registration process. This requires physical identification of an individual and cannot be completed online, for example.

His viewpoint of whether or not political representatives should utilise social networks and have representation, Molteno said, “I would have to say that this is a must…we have the view that a political representative or any representative of any particular government should be accessible to the people who voted them into power. Any particular voter has a mandate, or a relationship or agreement via casting their vote for any particular person that they brought to power. Politicians and people in government cannot be up in the sky, inaccessible and out of reach, they need to be in touch with the people they have a responsibility to serve and, indeed, have chosen them as their representatives.”

Attempts to solicit the view of the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), proved unsuccessful at the time of publishing.

Chris Tredger – Online Editor