The Social Media Myth

Since the Arab Spring in 2010 it seems that any revolution, mass protest or social upheaval has become defined by its relation to social media. Many point to social media as a catalyst for such events, with groups using platforms such as twitter as an organisational tool. However, in reality, this does not appear to be the case, particularly in Africa.

One major impediment to the influence of social media in Africa is simply the lack of access to it. Although internet penetration has increased rapidly over the last few years, according to figures produced by Project Isizwe (an NGO which aims to increase Wi-Fi access in South Africa) only 18% of Africa’s population had access to internet in 2014. This percentage had increased to 26% by January 2015 – according to We Are Social (a social media PR and marketing agency) – which, despite being a significant increase, still means that 74% of Africans do not have access to the internet. Moreover, internet penetration varies dramatically between different African countries. This was demonstrated by a World Bank study which showed that there were over 40 internet users per 100 people in South Africa, Egypt and Tunisia in 2013 compared to fewer than 2 users per 100 people in Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Guinea, Niger, Sierra Leone and Somalia.

Thus, it seems highly unlikely that social media would play a major role in precipitating political protest in the majority of African countries. As Professor Wisdom Tetty noted at the LSE Africa Summit in April 2015, social media platforms are privileges of the middle class. Social media therefore tends to be a lagging indicator of large scale unrest or political change. This was illustrated by a graph produced by Topsy (a social media and analytics company) and published by IRIN News, which showed the twitter activity associated with Burundi between 13th April and 13th May 2015. The graph showed that a spike of activity occurred only after the attempted coup took place on 13th May 2015. This indicates that twitter is predominantly associated with reporting, as also shown by the #lwili hashtag used during the Burkina Faso uprising, and is therefore not a useful intelligence tool in predicting events.

Even in terms of social media’s role in reporting, this is primarily used by people outside of Africa. As a report in the Mail & Guardian on 5th May 2015 showed, only 7% of Africans access their news through social media. This is compared to 46% that use radio and 37% that use television, which also indicates another hindrance for social media: illiteracy. As a UNESCO report showed, in 2012, the African adult literacy rate was 59% overall and in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone it was under 50%. Thus, social media’s influence in Africa will continue to be limited by the region’s relatively high illiteracy.

It seems that many commentators have become obsessed with social media and its role in political opposition – to the point that we overlook the fact that such events have taken place for centuries. If an event such as the Soweto Uprising happened today, it would almost certainly be attributed, at least in part, to social media. The importance of radio communications and civil society organisations are far too often overlooked. In Burundi, the closing of independent radio stations was a far more significant development than any internet blackout. Moreover, in Burkina Faso, the actions of Le Balai Citoyen were far more important than any hashtag. Even with regards to significant political change through the ballot box, social media is no replacement for old fashioned political organisation. As Funmi Iyanda – a Nigerian broadcaster, producer and journalist – noted at the Royal Africa Society’s ‘How to Fix Nigeria’ event in May 2015, “most of the people who went out to vote were not the people on social media, they were the people going out on a daily basis everyday”.

Nonetheless, this is not to say that technology has no part to play in political organisation and protest. It appears that we have skipped a step in explaining how technology aids the creation of political opposition, overlooking increased voice communication through the use of mobile phones. In contrast to internet penetration, Project Isizwe showed that in 2014 70% of Africans had a mobile handset. Professor Tetty also noted the importance of mobiles in fomenting political discussion in Ghana through radio phone-ins. Moreover, mobile voice communication is not hindered by high illiteracy rates, making it accessible to everyone. Thus, with regards to increasing the ability of people to organise political protests, it is far more likely that mobile phone communication is playing a bigger role than social media in Africa.

[The above is an extract from Africa Integrity’s upcoming June 2015 newsletter. To request a copy of this newsletter and join the mailing list please contact us]

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