News media is a load-bearing wall in a healthy democracy. It informs the public discourse, shapes citizens’ active participation in day-to-day governance, and holds elected officials to account. The rise of social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter in the past decade shows what happens when this new media ecosystem replaces traditional news as a primary source of information — and misinformation. What does this mean for the stability of African democracies, and the continent’s ability to tackle the climate crisis? Leonie Joubert has the story.
Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election turned the political establishment upside down. Shortly after this, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke: it came to light that the political consultancy firm had manipulated voters by using private data harvested on the social media platform Facebook to create divisive and targeted misinformation campaigns. It was also exposed for having done the same with the UK’s Brexit vote.
But well before that, Cambridge Analytica was piloting its political interference in Kenya, in the 2013 and 2017 electoral processes.
Kenyan political analyst, author, and activist Nanjala Nyabola has done a deep-dive into the extent to which social media has muddied the Kenyan democratic landscape in her book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya.
Another important book is Social Media and Politics in Africa: Democracy, Censorship and Security, which also looks at how social media is changing how we engage politically on the content.
What does this mean for African countries needing to self-organise as nations, and as a bloc, in the face of an ever more unstable climate?
Many readers will be familiar with the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, where tech industry insiders reveal how social media platforms manipulate users’ behaviour through algorithm-driven information that is carefully tailored to create heightened emotional response to keep audiences captive and engaging online, and in the process expose them to more advertising. One of the whistleblowers featured in the documentary is Tristan Harris, who since leaving Silicon Valley, has gone on to set up the Center for Humane Technology.
What if we can’t agree on what is real?
It’s one thing for citizens to disagree about their politics. But it’s another altogether when society cannot agree on what is real: do people accept the facts of climate change, or that mask wearing protects people from the coronavirus? What happens when evidence-based science gets entangled with ideology: that mask-wearing in the US is a signal that someone is a Democrat, or that driving a gas-guzzling militarised utility vehicle is somehow pro-Trump?
This is central to a conversation between Tristan Harris and the neuroscientist and author Sam Harris (no relation) on the Making Sense podcast. The episode Welcome to the Cult Factory is essential listening.
Social media has been implicated with the political ascent of strongmen leaders like Donald Trump in the USA and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, both who are known for their nationalistic tendencies, political divisiveness, and climate-denying positions. Social media has also been central to the spread of counter-scientific ideas about carbon pollution and the coronavirus pandemic.
If governments don’t respond to these issues based on evidence-based reasoning, this presents an existential threat to society, they argue on the podcast. If citizens don’t accept the science of climate change or the public health emergency that is the pandemic, they won’t hold their governments accountable for the appropriate responses.
Digital colonialism in Africa
The threat of social media to democratic processes in the US and Europe has received plenty of attention in the mainstream media and from activist organisations in recent years.
Legal expert Julie Owono, the executive director of France-based NGO network Internet Without Borders, is drawing attention to the implications for Africa of aggressive advances by Silicon Valley tech companies on the continent.
Speaking on the Centre for Humane Technology’s podcast Your Undivided Attention (episode entitled Facebook Goes ‘2Africa’ ) she discusses the implications of Facebook’s expansion into Africa, starting with the rollout of a subsea cable that will put in place information infrastructure that is essential for society to function, but where citizens have little say in how it is rolled out, accessed, and managed.
Private companies are putting the physical infrastructure in place, Owono argues, and African citizens need therefore to have a ‘seat at the table’.
In their online conversation, Harris and Owono don’t address the implications of Facebook’s expansion into Africa specifically in terms of the continent’s efforts to address climate change. But the issue is implicit: if social media undermines democracies and shapes the information landscape, it has implications for how countries tackle the biggest existential threat of our times.
‘I fear that if we don’t seize that opportunity (to have a seat at the table),’ Owono says, ‘(the) internet will definitely become a tool of repression in places that desperately need freedoms and democracy.’
For her, having a seat at the table means that private tech companies must aim for greater transparency in how they install and manage the communications infrastructure, and that civil society and human rights organisations need to be part of the oversight of how they operate.
Tech companies can’t hope to enjoy the profits of their market expansion in Africa without taking responsibility for the political implications that result from the information that gets spread on these platforms, she says.
While US and European politics are front and centre of the global discussion about social media’s role in manipulating public opinion and electoral processes, Africa is the new frontier for tech companies’ efforts to increase their market share of this critical new information ecosystem. Here is some essential further reading:
Use of New Media during the Kenya Elections by Christa Odinga from Uppsala University’s Department of Informatics and Media, published in 2013.
- The Janus face of social media and democracy? Reflections on Africa, by Bruce Mutsvairo and Helge Rønning, in April 2020.
- How Social Media is Changing Politics in Africa, by Maggie Dwyer and Thomas Molony, in August 2019.
- E-propaganda, Social Media Campaigning: Fake news in the age of social media, on The Youth Cafe, November 2020.
- Manipulating Social Media to Undermine Democracy, by Sanja Kelly, Mai Truong, Adrian Shahbaz, Madeline Earp, and Jessica White, no date given.