Can Social Media Help Build a Better Africa?
There’s no denying the impact social media has had on the geopolitical landscape. Its perceived role in the Arab Spring uprisings between 2010 and 2014 hinted at the power a connected world can have. The phrase Twitter revolution is now one of the most iconic terms in modern politics. And leaders are concerned, too, if the growing rate of internet and social media blackouts is anything to go by.
This is especially true in developing nations and Africa offers numerous examples. The latest trend is to block social media access during elections periods, where national security and transparency consistently raise question marks. While making the wrong comments on social media is a quick way to land yourself in prison – even in some of Africa’s more “developed” nations.
Such punishments only prove how spooked many of Africa’s leaders are by the freedom of communication social media offers. Empowered people are difficult to suppress, after all. And many Africans are doing everything they can to use social media as a tool for building a better Africa.
How social media is empowering Africans
The rise of mobile internet and social media in Africa hasn’t only changed the way people communicate – it’s had a direct impact on the political landscape of many countries.
Raising the curtain on Africa’s regimes
Perhaps the most important role of social media geopolitically is the exposure it brings. There’s little room for secrecy when the entire world is connected to your everyday people in your country. Human rights violations, civil unrest and public opinion are all visible at the touch of a button – and the audience is global.
That said, we still have examples like Rwanda, where the regime is incredibly secretive. Or Ethiopia, where the human rights violations are well-known but public dissent is a dangerous thing.
Connecting the general public
In the case of the Arab Spring uprisings – which stemmed from Africa before spreading into the Middle East – and similar movements, social media’s largest role is connecting the general public. Strength in numbers takes a whole new meaning when people can communicate and organise on a large scale. And we’ve seen various heads of state ousted from their position over the last five years – the so-called Twitter revolutions.
There’s more to social media than riots and civil, of course. Businesses are better connected now, too, and for many countries that still lack nationwide landline systems, this is a major (not to mention rapid) development. The rise of mobile technologies is also one of the most promising new industries across African nations – one that levels the playing field by creating jobs for people with skills, not just connections.
A new voice for journalists
Journalists in many African nations risk their lives on a daily basis by simply trying to do their job. Twelve reporters were killed in Africa last year alone – five of which lost their lives in South Sudan. Conventional media workers face increasingly difficult conditions but social media provides a new channel to get their stories heard. Social networks don’t necessarily protect African journalists from danger but it does give many of them a voice to get their message heard.
A new kind of transparency for elections
African elections are always a tentative event. In parts of the continent, they’re little more than ceremonious affairs to validate leaders remaining in power. While, in some countries, elections are seen as a measurement of the current state of democracy. However, fair and transparent elections are never guaranteed and social media is providing an extra layer of legitimacy in a growing number of nations.
Twitter played a notable role in Nigeria’s elections earlier this year and #ZambiaDecides did its part in Zambia’s polls last month. Even the election-time social media blackouts act as a red flag for onlookers trying to asses the validity of African polls.
Has social media really changed anything?
Despite the impact social media has made on life in Africa, skeptics would ask what has really changed. Violence continues to mar elections, regimes still violate the most basic of human rights and corruption largely goes unpunished.
Social media blackouts
If social media empowers Africans with a voice, it’s not impervious to censorship. The sheer number of social media blackouts in African nations over the last five years suggests leaders know just how powerful it can be. Egypt was the first to wipe out social access following unrest during the Africa Spring uprising, but not the last.
These days, blackouts are a regular part of African elections. Nigeria and Zambia are two rare exceptions where access to social media went uninterrupted during recent polls. Congo, Chad and Uganda are among the latest pull the plug on social media during elections and Ghana did the same on election day last month.
It’s not only elections prompting governments to take down social media either. Ethiopia recently blocked access during the exam period, claiming it was an effort to thwart cheating. However, critics say it was more likely a testing exercise for future blackouts, which is becoming standard procedure in many African countries.
Social media makes you accountable
In December 2015, an Ethiopian activist was arrested for posting anti-government comments on Facebook. Yonatan Tesfaye has been in detention ever since and now he faces terrorism charges for speaking out against the state. Sadly, an internet connection doesn’t automatically come with freedom of expression but it does make you accountable for everything you say. And Ethiopia isn’t the only African nation willing to lock you up for posting the wrong thing on social media.
The negative impact on society
There are also various negative impacts caused by social media on society to consider. Despite its name, there are serious concerns about the side-effects of a life dominated by smartphones.
“Social media does more harm than good,” social worker Bob Allan Karemera told All Africa in May. “It reduces productivity in a way that more people spend time on Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter instead of doing more productive stuff.”
“It also has reduced creativity in a way that people want to use shortcuts instead of thinking. You can find anything on social media meaning that you don’t need to think,” he said.
None of this is unique to Africa, of course, but we’re talking about countries where innovation, creative thinking and ambition are vital to development. If social media pacifies Africans into smartphone addiction, the drive to build a better Africa could be at risk.