ICT, Social Media, and Elections in Africa: A Prospective Study

ICT, Social Media and Elections in Africa: A Prospective Study

by Alex Laverty

The year of 2011 has so far seen many important elections on the African continent. With powerhouses like Nigeria and South Africa holding national and local elections respectively, an independence referendum in South Sudan, plus a presidential election in the fast growing Uganda, the year has been full of vote casting on the continent. To finish off 2011 an anticipated presidential election by a Mubarak-less Egypt will be held in the fall. All of these elections provide windows into the development of democracy and freedom on the continent. 2011 is also the start of a new decade on the African continent, one that follows significant economic development fueled by the high prices of natural resources. While the continent has widely consolidated economic reform in the first decade of the 21st century, democratic reform still lags in comparison. Crisis in Zimbabwe, DR Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, among others highlight the ongoing struggles that the continent faces in terms of democratic consolidation. Additionally, high prices of oil has reinforced autocratic regimes across the world, but especially in Africa where the continent’s petroleum is increasingly eyed by the West as the alternative to the Middle East and by China as the solution to their growing consumption.

During this first decade of the 21st century, another increase was under way: mobile penetration. With many country’s posting a subscriber rate in the low single digits in 2000, many countries now see that number at nearly 50%. While subscriber rates don’t necessarily show the full impact of a mobile phone and the potential users, it is the statistic used by the UN’s telecom organ, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), to gauge mobile penetration.  The substantial growth of mobile technology has alerted development agencies and organizations to the empowerment that mobile devices bring to people of developing and emerging countries. The field of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has been merged with these developmental bodies into a field of ICT for Development (ICT4D). This emerging field has captured the interests of a range of specialties, from government bureaucrats, to information system companies, to multinationals, and to health organizations.

While the long term effects of ICT4D are still to be established, the immediate results are impressive. Impacts in health, by connecting the local community to a doctor, in commerce, by fostering micro-finance and mobile banking, and in education, by bringing instant on resources to children in schools with no materials are a significant matter. Through greater interconnectivity, development projects are able to reach more people and to bring resources to people more cheaply. My thesis will develop from studying ICT and how it impacts elections, democracy, and freedom. To understand this, not only much the technology of ICT be understood, but also the ways that people are using it for political and social purposes. Much of this is through new social media. Thus, this new medium must also be understood in the context of mobilization and how it changes the relationship between the electorate and the politicians. My paper will outline this broadly, then review some of the literature that has impacted my understanding, as well as showing how these articles will contribute to my thesis. Finally, I briefly outline the direction my thesis will head.

ICT and Democracy

In terms of democracy, ICT plays a significant role in the future of its evolution. Because the term ICT is so broad, any device, whether it be a radio, television, mobile phone, or iPad can be classified in the ICT arena. Traditional ICT technologies, such as radio and the television have played substantial roles in elections and democracy since their invention for obvious reasons: the ability to communicate messages to the masses. However, both of these technologies have used one-way conduits to broadcast messages. Even telephone campaigns have been a one sided affair in developed democracies, with campaign aids calling or texting to inform potential voters the pros of their candidate and the cons of the opposing candidate. These traditional modes of communication are well established in western countries, and have been employed by democracies and autocracies to meet their objectives.

However, in the developing world, the infrastructure to conduct communication through these traditional modes of fixed line telephony, over the air television, and radio was first  constructed by the western countries seeking to impose colonial or imperial control over these regions. Thus, these networks were generally only established in urban areas where the concentration of people was the greatest and the need to control the masses was the highest. When colonial powers pulled out of much of the developing world following World War II, newly independent states often had no infrastructure to communicate this message to the rural areas. While radio became the medium of choice because of cost and scalability, these developing countries reminded significantly behind the rest of the world in communications technology. This state remained for much of the second half of the 20th century.

With the advent of mobile technology this paradigm of communication has changed. Now citizens are more connected to each other, to the events in their country, and thus closer to the government. However, this proximity means little if communication remains a one way avenue. Thus, the creation of social media, which creates a forum for two way communication, is the real paradigm shift as it allows citizens and government to communicate back and forth. This has many consequences for democracy.

Social media, in terms of democracy, is increasing used to mobilize citizens, hold government officials accountable, and to document abuses and fraud. These modes of usage take on added significance when viewed from the interconnectivity of the world through the world wide web. The Internet allows this national communication to be viewed by the rest of the world, as well as allow for the engagement between stakeholders inside and outside of the country. The message that social media users intentionally or inadvertently spread now has a audience as wide as 2 billion. Social media also allows for the bypassing of traditional media groups that often have corporate or ideological bias that shapes their reporting. The democratic values of social media means that anyone from around the world can engage with an event happening anywhere in the world regardless of their governments view of the event, provided the proper access exists.

Mobilization has always been a key part of political movements. Spreading the message of your group to as many people as possible has always been seen as one of the greatest challenges because of the lack of interconnectivity. Whether that was due to geographic distance, the socio-economic gap, or the digital divide, influencing those people who are not part of the movement is necessary to meet political and democratic objectives. From Paul Revere riding through towns in Massachusetts forewarning of the British attack to Helen Zille encouraging her twitter followers to vote for the Democratic Alliance, the goal is still the same: spread a message as far and wide as possible using the most advanced technology of the day.

Accountability in the political sense is the acknowledgement and assumption of responsibility, answering to the legislative bodies and the electorate. As is the case with low levels of communication from a non-democratic or corrupt democracy, the public has little opportunity to hold their leaders accountable for their actions, simply because they don’t know about much of the conduct of their leaders. ICT technologies that are accessible to each and every person suddenly eliminates the wall of obscurity that politicians could live in. Now, a picture, a voice recording, or a personal account can be transmitted through SMS, broadband data, blogs, tweets, and Youtube. It prevents small events from being swept under the proverbial rug of ‘politics’ and thus allows it to be instantly shown to the light of day and create public debate and backlash over a corrupt act, or any act that is perceived to not be in the best interest of the respective electorate. There was recently an app developed for iPhones that would allow users to report the giving of, or asking for bribes. This would allow the app to crowd source user information to show ‘hotspots’ of corrupt activity.

Thirdly, election fraud and abuses previously worked fairly straightforwardly in rural parts of Africa. With no international monitors being able to traverse to each district in the countryside, national and local elections were often accompanied by significant fraud and abuse because of the anonymity culprits could be assured would cover their tracks. With no evidence of ballot stuffing, voter violence, or other tricks of the ruling party’s cronies, there was very little that could be done from domestic and international viewpoints. Hearsay and conjecture are unlikely to ever bring down a government, or bring about international sanctions. However, documented human rights abuses and confirmed electoral discrepancies certainly can bring about international attention. In the case of Zimbabwe, it should be no surprise that despite Robert Mugabe carrying out much of the same political strategy employed since he ordered his Red Bridge into Matabeleland to crush dissenters in the 1980s, it is only recently that the world has begun to take notice of Zimbabwe’s political crisis. The growth in international interest in Zimbabwe’s situation, closely mirrors the acceleration of mobile penetration on the continent. Now, with a broadband mobile connection and a camera phone, election monitoring quickly becomes a task everyone can take part in.

All of these methods used to mobilize, hold politicians accountable, and report election conditions are quickly adopting social media as a medium to conduct business. Each usage requires access to ICT technology. Twitter, Facebook, and custom crowd sourcing apps require a broadband internet infrastructure in order to transmit photos and video, plus provide access to the websites of social media tools. My study is interested in finding out if these social media tools actually do improve democracy in countries that use them more than countries that don’t. Creating a measure of social media usage will be the most difficult part of my study, but once an accepted measure is created, I will have to be able to explain any difference social media makes by presenting the ways listed above in specific uses in elections to create those effects.

Literature Review

Larry Diamond has provided a new term to the ICT for Development lexicon, one that neatly fits with my studies into democracy: Liberation Technology. It is defined as:

Any form of information and communication technology (ICT) that can expand political, social, and economic freedom. In the contemporary era, it means essentially the modern, interrelated forms of digital ICT—the computer, the Internet, the mobile phone, and countless innovative applications for them, including “new social media” such as Facebook and Twitter.

Also the name of his article, “Liberation Technology” is able to, according to Diamond, enable citizens to report news, expose wrongdoing, express opinions, mobilize protest, monitor elections, scrutinize government, deepen participation, and expand the horizons of freedom.

What sets this form of ICT apart from previous modes is the vast audience it can reach and the multiway communication it can create. While not all of the Internet is used for political reasons, those who wish to form grass roots organizations now have a body to draw upon for members that is not just local, but global. Tools allow activists to reach large numbers of followers who are then able to participate in the debate or movement using the same tools.

Diamond provides examples of Malaysia and China where the expansion of technology has been met with push back from the national governments who seek to control the flow of information. The article outlines ways of resistance through technology against repression, most notably the techniques of netizens who find ways through China’s Great Firewall and disguise their criticisms of the government in artful, articulate, and double entendre methods. Diamond then specifically addressed liberation technology in Africa saying that it can be used as ‘accountability technology’ through the use of SMS or text messaging. With infrastructure lacking on of the continent in terms of broadband and third generation mobile networks, the use of text messaging to spread information is vital. Some have tapped into this availability through the creation of software that allows users of mobile phones to submit data during elections and crisis that allow for a real time mapping of events. This aggregation was first used to great effect in Kenya during the post-election violence in 2008.

Liberation Technology is then described as it was used during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, China’s protests in 2007, and by the Green Movement in Iran. These overviews will give my project places to begin researching uses of ICT and social media in democratic change. Notably, these events are focused around mobilization, and not the accountability that Diamond stressed in his piece about Africa. This raises a question of political environment and political economy. Are the uses for technology constrained by the political and economic environments of different regions of the world, or does bias and prejudice play any role in our predictions of native adaptions of technology? Simply, are certain uses of technology universal or is technology constantly adapted to a locality?

Diamond concludes by showing that the restrictive measures of repressive regimes are slipping into Western regulatory systems, just as social media tools have penetrated totalitarian regimes. This has set off a race between “democrats seeking to circumvent Internet censorship and dictators that want to extend and refine it” (Larry Diamond).

Catherine Bailard, a former UCLA PhD student, focuses in on Diamond’s concept of ‘accountability technology’ by examining the impact of mobile phones on the corrupt side of the economy in “Mobile Phone Diffusion and Corruption in Africa”. Bailard is of the opinion that mobile phones will have a negative impact, thus lessening corruption, by decentralizing information and communication. The diffusion of mobile devices increase the chance of being caught conducting corrupt practices, as well as creating an environment that provides fewer chances to conduct such practices. She provides a background in corruption and mobile phone diffusion, but most importantly for my work, she uses two empirical analyses to test her hypothesis. She employs a fixed regression of data to see if there is any correlation between mobile penetration and perceived corruption scores across 46 African countries between 1999 to 2006. She also adds a critical addition that seeks to “address the endogeneity and misspecification concerns that accompany such cross-country quantitative analyses” (Bailard).

The study introduces important understandings of the benefits of mobile phones, the link between democracy and corruption, and the amount of privatization of a nation’s telecom company. All three areas will be critical to my understanding of how these factors correlate with democracy and free and fair elections. Bailard also cites authors that provide the foundations of her understandings. This provides my research a look into the underpinning of her theory and her arguments, While many don’t necessarily pertain to her research, she also provides, indirectly, important guidance on how to compose explanations based on facts established by other fields. Another lesson from Bailard’s work is how she seeks to offset certain biases or control for certain factors that may eschew or invalidate her findings. Replicating this in my own work will be critical in order to have a solid test of my thesis.

Finally, in her individual-level analysis, she explains why her sample country, Namibia, was chosen. She also provides guidance on how she selected her variables for the study, and how they interacted with her other. Her technique of measuring mobile signal strength, highlighted the need to obtain materials that will show this level of data in Nigeria and South Africa. I also find useful her analyses of the coverage area and her explanation of mitigating other factors that may influence the results. Her comparison of mobile coverage and corruption, could prove to be a basis of research for the second part of my thesis, with my study substituting election turnout or legitimacy for her corruption factor.

Presley Ifukor provides an excellent resource for discourse in social media and elections in his “‘Elections’ or ‘Selections’? Blogging and Twittering the Nigerian 2007 General Elections”. While many of his sources are American based in terms of analyzing social media’s effects, many of the definitions of social media are important to understand. Ifukor specifically addresses microblogs and weblogs (blogs) as they relate to the 2007 Nigerian election. His questions are based in the political science realm, as he seeks to discover what role these blogs play in political discourse and activities of the 21st century. He theorizes that social media empowers electorates to be actively involved in the political process and helps negotiate terms of governance in a democratic system. Importantly however, he seeks answers to how blogging can challenge autocratic regimes, since much of Africa would fall under this political category.

His paper goes on to describe the lead up to the Nigerian election and it profiles the development of blogging, by looking at the usage of the medium by government officials. Ifukor also provides samples of blogs used by the electorate, specifically those that gave personal accounts of events on election day. He dives into the discourse used in the blogs and microblogs like Twitter by differentiating the difference between the words ‘select’ and ‘elect’. This is where the article loses significances for me in my studies, but will provide critical primary resources for analysis.

Thesis Model

Constructing a model for my thesis would look to ascertain a direct linkage between the increases in Information and communication technologies and increased democracy and/or freedom. While both of these measures are broad and abstract, another scholar has attempted to make this linkage through a regression of data from the Middle East. Farid Shirazi has constructed such a model based on data from 1995-2003. His regression analyses shows that ICT expansion resulted in a positive impact on democracy and freedom as well as the reduction of the digital divide (Shirazi) .

I seek to use his regression model with as current data as possible from Sub-Saharan Africa, with the addition of social media as one of the factors. Here is Shirazi’s original equation:

His explanation of his formula was this:

where i indexes the ten countries in this study, a0 is a constant, α1 throughα4 are variable coefficients and ε it is the normalized residual. While the dependent variable freedomit denotes the existing level of institutional democracy and civil liberties in each country, independent variables such as ict , edu , filter and resist represent the level of it it it it ICT expansion, tertiary education, degree of filtering and state censorship applied on media and the intensity of institutional resistance on the business activities in each country for the period of 1995-2003.

I would use the same formula, but add a factor that was a measurement of social media penetration. This would like be a aggregation of users of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and local based social networking tools:

freedomit= a0 + a1 * ICTit + a2 * SOCIAL + a3 * EDUit + a4 * filterit + a5 * resistit + Eit

In order to ensure that this formula will work with this addition, further collaboration with political science post doctoral students will be necessary. Additionally, the correct aggregation of social media tools with need to be tuned correctly to monitor their impact accurately.

The results of Shirazi’s regressions showed that those Middle Eastern countries that were first to develop ICT capabilities were able to “liberalize their economy along with socio-political reform as of the late 1990s, [and] were not only able to enjoy a higher degree of freedom in the Middle East but were also able to develop their ICT more effectively and at a higher rate”. (Shirazi) In my regression, I would regress my area specific data, originally with Shirazi’s equation and then test the modified equation with the social media factor included. The second test faces more challenges than the first because of the relative newness of social media usage, not only in Africa, but in the world. However, the recent events in North Africa suggest that people can quickly adopt social media for their own uses. The question that will need to be answered will concern whether social media is simply an easy outlet for mass organization, communication, and broadcasting, or whether social media encourages, expands, or develops new ideas and groups due to the ease of use. While anecdotal evidence will likely be at the core of any conclusions, my hope is that by the time this thesis were to be presented in 2012, there would be more data available on social media usage, and more concrete linkages will be established showing the true effect on a qualitative level, thus hopefully providing my quantitative approach a better chance of showing significant correlation between democracy and social media.

The second part of my thesis will seek to follow the model of Bailard’s research that sought to combine a continent wide study with individual research cases. Ideally, if the data can be ascertained, I will examine the effects of ICT in the most recent elections of Africa’s hegemons: South Africa and Nigeria. With data access at a premium, I will start out searching for broad themes of connection between ICT penetration and affects on elections and democracy. The national presidential elections of 2011 in Nigeria and the local government elections of 2011 in South Africa will be the two samples from which to draw anecdotal and empirical evidence in order to make conclusions. Then these two elections will be compared to the 1999 presidential elections in Nigeria and the 2000 municipal elections in South Africa in order to see how ICT impacted certain factors of elections: turn out, voter preference, and reports of fraud or abuse. Qualitative factors such as credibility of winners, international view of the elections, and sustainability of the government will also be considered.

My thesis seeks out to ascertain how ICT, specifically mobile and high tech ICT, impacts democracy. With Shirazi’s study of the Middle East becoming ever more important with the recent revolutions, queries into the state of ICT in Africa must now be undertaken to understand how multinational organizations, corporations, and local NGOs can use ICT and mobile devices to enhance, strengthen, or even bring about democracy in their countries. Part one will be a regression to see exactly if ICT leads to more freedom or less. Part two, will examine the affects of ICT and social media on the most recent elections in Nigeria and South Africa. The results from these studies should contribute to the growing literature on information and communications technologies and how they can bring about not only development, but freedom to the African continent.

Bailard, Catie Snow. “Mobile Phone Diffusion and Corruption in Africa.” Political Communication 26.3 (2009) : 333–353. Web.

Larry Diamond. “Liberation Technology.” Journal of Democracy 21.3 (2010) : 69–83. Web.

Shirazi, Farid. “The Contribution of ICT to Freedom and Democracy:.” The Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries 35 (2008) : 1–24. Print.


9 thoughts on “ICT, Social Media, and Elections in Africa: A Prospective Study

  1. Pingback: Social Media, ICT, and 2011 Elections in Africa | The African File

  2. Quite impressive!

    Know I know I’m in the right field of enquiry…cmc/new media/social media in developing economies.

    Insightful work, that I’ll have to cite, even NOW!

  3. This without doubt is a very brillint work of wisdom. Infact, v been looking for this type of material all ds days without luck but thank God who brought luck to my side to come across this wonderful work of yours. But dis work work remains questionnaire or dont you use one?

  4. A good piece but should have gone further in the research method

  5. can anyone please suggest good ICT tools for elections in Bangladesh?

  6. It is similar 2 ma wrk on, wt mine havin limit in studyin only d usage of facebook in Jonathan Goodluck’s presidntial campaign, 2011. may knw more abt u, prof?

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