Impact of Social Media on Political Mobilization in East and West Africa

Article excerpt


The role of media continues to be useful in mobilizing and drawing citizens to focus on issues that are perceived as important and in priming public opinion among many Africans to get engaged in the political process of governance and democratization (Kalyango, 2011; Montero, 2009). The massive boom in the online and wireless digital media augmented traditional media, namely radio, newspapers, television, and magazines (Montero, 2009). This study examines whether the online and wireless digital media have aided political mobilization in Africa more than the traditional media in the past five years. The digital media, such as cellular phones, have penetrated remote areas in many African states that are inaccessible to traditional media.

The International Telecommunication Union reported that Africa's wireless digital media market grew by more than 50 million subscribers in 2010, reaching 435 million mobile subscribers as at summer 2010 (ISSP, 2010). That represented a 20% increase in the size of the market and almost more than half of Africa's adult population (ISSP, 2010). Drawing from Gastil (2008) and Montero (2009), the study also seeks public opinion as to whether its use of wireless digital media as a tool of political mobilization and a conduit of communication to compliment the traditional media in East and West Africa is perceived as important for the current revolutionary phase of democratization. The rationale for this study is based on previous studies (Mwesige, 2009; Onyebadi & Kalyango, 2011), which suggested that many Africans use their cell phones to call in live radio and television current affairs talk shows to discuss politics and to draw attention to socioeconomic issues of national concern.

The four countries of interest here are Ghana, Ivory Coast, Uganda, and Kenya. The online and wireless digital media are conceptualized here to include Internet information from the social online networks, which are used to tweet, chat, instantmessage, video Skype, and blog. Plus text messages and beeps, which communicate, shared meanings and nonverbal cues. This study also explores whether and to what extent these social media platforms are perceived by their users to be usurping the role of the traditional media in mobilizing them to participate in the public sphere of engaging in issues of national significance. Previous research opines that "the media and for that matter digital media are playing a critical role in election consolidation in some countries [like Ghana] on the continent [Africa]" (Temin & Smith, 2000, p.586). The Internet and other personal wireless electronic digital devises also have reduced the time that information seekers and 'netizens' used to spend to receive or deliver the news and other information.

One of the assumptions probed here is that mobile phones provide citizens with a powerful tool in Africa to capture and distribute content that exposes politicians and civil bureaucrats who seemingly engage in shady deals. The study is based on online in-depth interviews collected between December 2011 and February 2012, targeting Africans in Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Uganda who are 18 years and older. Their attitudes towards the use of social media as a means or engaging in the political process and their perceptions of the impact of social media on political mobilization in East and West Africa are discussed. Also discussed are the obstacles that face researchers who collect online and mobile phone in-depth interview data in Africa.

Internet Use in Africa

The Internet is regarded as one of the most useful inventions in mass communication, as an agent of human and social development or as an important transmitter of globalization (Bonjawo, 2002; Castells et al., 2007; Gyamfi, 2005). However, the Internet Usage and Population Statistics shows that by the end of 2010, Africa still shared only five percent of Internet traffic. But there is constant growth in accessibility and application of Internet knowledge to many aspects of social life in Africa (Kiyindou 2004; Mbarika, Jensen & Messo, 2002). …