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ODHIAMBO: How deep is social media’s impact on African politics?



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If there is a phenomenon that gave the digital world global fame, it was the Arab Spring. Today, one imagines that many netizens have forgotten that the Arab Spring started in Africa, and that probably it was in Africa that the fires of the imagined digital political revolution were also extinguished.

If anyone expected significant political changes in, say, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco or even Syria, there isn’t much to report today. Sure, Libya experienced change. But today it is a very sick giant of Africa. Egypt remains under the military system that has ruled it for decades. The old man of Algeria may have left power but the military and the ruling elite hang around. Omar al-Bashir has been deposed in Sudan but the army men are unwilling to allow full civilian control. Syria remains a serious indictment of human civilisation.

The relatively ‘successful’ street protests in Algeria and Sudan today did not even pretend to rely on social media for their energies, although Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have ensured that information from these countries instantly reaches the rest of the world. But how much influence does the digital world, more so social media, have on African politics or on democracy in Africa?

Nanjala Nyabola’s book, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era Is Transforming Kenya (Zed Books, 2018) seeks to make a case about the importance of the digital age on politics, democracy, equity, justice and such other realities of modern life in Africa. Kenya is her case study. As the title suggests, this is an optimistic outlook on the digital world, seeing the positive in the capacity of the online world to affect human lives by effecting changes that probably wouldn’t have been possible or would have taken much longer in the past.

Who can argue against the benefits of the internet today? With internet connection one can go to school at a fraction of the cost of formal schooling. One can receive a sermon right in their sitting room. One can buy or sell goods and services whilst sipping tea. One can talk to a friend or relative living thousands of miles away without the bother of disconnection as it used to happen a few years ago. The internet has freed millions of people from depending on others — one can get ‘free’ advice on a range of subjects, from health issues and legal problems to engineering questions and agricultural concerns; one can get a spouse online; one can download music or films for free online. Many of these were issues that needed ‘consultation’, at a fee, from an expert, whom sometimes it took days to reach.

But the most significant influence of the internet has been in its ability to ‘connect’ citizens to the political world. All over the world, citizens can now organise online and in some cases affect the offline debates and decisions by politicians who previously wouldn’t have been bothered about the electorate. Politicians are aware of the power of the internet. They follow the discussions on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media forums. Politicians and their supporters, in turn, seek to influence the conversations and ideas shared between members of these forums and consequently hope that their ideas and actions in the digital world can translate into votes offline. Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics looks at how this relationship between the online and offline worlds pan out.

Nanjala suggests that the post-election crisis of 2007 set the stage for Kenyans online to be more involved in politics, considering that this is the election that nearly broke up Kenya. The violence that previously only affected poorer Kenyans during elections had threatened this time to reach the middle and upper classes in their gated communities. Consequently, Kenyans who didn’t generally engage in politics exploited the online world to speak out against political manipulation of the citizens, condemn hate speech and question political party manifestos.

By the elections of 2013 and subsequently 2017, the digital world seriously offered an alternative space to the offline world that the politicians occupied. Yes, the politicians did fully exploit the online world, too, such as by hiring companies that analysed data to understand as well as influence voting patterns. Both the ruling party and the opposition used such data analytics to generate messages that they deemed would influence the different voting categories in the elections. However, it is the manipulation of the electoral results, beginning in 2007, that is seen as having undermined Kenyan democracy. This is the basis of Nanjala’s argument that although the digital world in Kenya has ‘democratised’, the political class is still analogue.

How? Because, as Nanjala shows, Kenya has been at the forefront of digital innovation in Africa — especially in terms of applications that have immediate impact on life as well as in the use of social media. To repeat a cliché, the invention of M-Pesa, the electronic money transfer system, hasn’t just made the lives of Kenyans easier, it has revolutionised the relationship between Kenyans and banks. Now one can access a loan and repay it without having to physically go to a bank, queue to see the loan manager, sign the contract that is couched in legalese and wait for the loan to be processed.

The Kenyans on Twitter hashtag has been another space for hundreds of Kenyans to talk to each other, engage with bureaucrats and politicians who generally are unresponsive to problems experienced daily by citizens, as well as challenge stereotypes on Kenya by global media agencies or even speak about matters of human interest elsewhere in the world. #KOT has thus become an arena for Kenyans to ask hard questions of government officials or even managers in the private sector who fall short of expectations in providing services or have broken the law, with impunity.

To a large extent, therefore, the digital world presents Kenyans with the opportunity to ‘politic’ or ‘protest’ or be involved in civic activism, all of which were previously the preserve of politicians and the civil society.

So, how did Kenyans end up with this contradiction in their life? How can Kenyans be able to speak and effect some social changes so freely and easily online but have to live with a messed up political system that taxes them but remains so undemocratic. Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics doesn’t really offer the reader a concrete answer. The author seems to suggest that technology — its use and abuse — has the potential to remake or democratise Kenyan politics. But she poses a rhetorical question: “So is technology good or bad for politics?” Her own answer: “The truth, as always, is somewhere down the middle. In Kenya, as much as there are groups and parasites buying influence to create and sustain a misinformation ecosystem that undermines true political participation, there are groups like Maskani ya Taifa or Siasa Place that are using these spaces to inform the public and alter public consciousness.”

In the end though this is a very optimistic take on the potential of the digital world to initiate and sustain social change. But it is a view that still has to contend with the shortcomings of the digital space in Africa/Kenya. For instance, the internet is yet to spread to much of Kenya due to poor connectivity or high costs of connection. There is the ever-present threat of government shutdown when it fears citizen mobilisation through the social media — as it recently happened in Uganda and Sudan. The online community can also be undemocratic as when it suppresses contrary opinion. Overall, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics reminds us about the potential for social progress that the digital world offers, most significantly the need to first change the way we do politics, given the power that politicians wield over citizens.

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