New Media Technologies and Elections in Africa – an African Elections Project Perspective
By Jeremiah Sam, Projects Director, African Elections Project
Elections present exciting and challenging times for citizens, political parties, electoral management bodies, and media organizations in many African countries as they continue to play significant roles in ensuring that the process is successful on the African continent. Media coverage of elections in Africa was traditionally limited to radio, television and newspapers. However, in the last decade, noticeable changes have been observed in the manner in which media organisations cover elections. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have added a new dimension to the plethora of tools available for the reporting of elections.
Their growth partly reflects the proliferation of Internet access, cheap and affordable bandwidth, availability of innovative Internet tools and the repurposing of such tools for use on increasingly sophisticated mobile and handheld devices. The growing demand for ‘‘home news’’ by the African Diaspora is also driving the creation of content and a growth in the market for the consumption of online news as evidenced by the number of newspapers with online editions. African-based media have stepped up supply to meet this demand.
New media technology platforms allow people from all walks of life regardless of their level of education, gender or social standing to add their voices to various issues raised during the electoral process. Increasingly social media has provided a medium for citizens to be actively involved in the electoral process by engaging and questioning key actors such as politicians on what policy interventions they intend to deliver when elected. Before this intervention, it was almost impossible for citizens to directly engage with politicians or state officials on governance matters.
The continent has experienced increasing technological growth in recent times. 38% of the continent’s population uses a mobile phone with a projected rate of 41% expected to be reached soon. Over 65 per cent of the continent live under the footprint of a mobile network stimulating over US$56 billion in private-sector investments over a four-year period (2004 – 8). As of March 2011, Africa’s Internet penetration had reached 11.4 per cent and is set to grow further. In spite of these projections, the numbers are still small compared to global averages. In terms of Internet users, the continent contributed only 5.6 per cent of the global total in 2011, even though it accounts for over one billion of its population.
The average monthly Internet cost on the continent for approximately five hours of access is US$60, a high amount to pay in comparison to North America or Europe. However, the general quality of access (speed and reliability) has increased, and there is every indication that access costs will decrease in the coming years due to the rapid deployment of telecommunications infrastructure across the continent. Until then, comparatively exorbitant costs of communications will continue to pose a barrier that will lead to a slow uptake of online news media.
The growth in mobile and Internet use outlined above spills over into the political sector evidenced by politically oriented websites or sites maintained by electoral management institutions. The African Elections Project (www.africanelections.org) was established in 2008 with the ambition of enhancing the ability of journalists, citizen journalists and the news media to provide timely, relevant elections information and knowledge, and to undertake the monitoring of specific and important aspects of governance as it relates to elected officials. The project uses mobile apps, social media tools and platforms to develop capacity and to monitor the governance process prior to, during and after elections. Moreover, it leverages the media’s role in democratic societies by providing free, fair and impartial reporting on elections that do not inflame the passions of the electorate.
Most online and traditional media institutions link to these sites as a convenient source of election information. Nearly all political parties have websites, though most of them were not regularly updated. Political actors, especially presidential candidates, create online presence using social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs to espouse their manifestos.
Citizen journalists make up another key constituent of the online electoral ecosystem by providing online content that may consist of independent news but also an aggregation of content from political parties, electoral management bodies and organisations with political affiliations. In some cases, these citizen journalists were the source of breaking news and they served as news leads for traditional media, providing user-generated content and amplifying (online) traditional media content.
New Media and the Changing Face of Elections in Africa (Real-Time Reporting)
Any social media tool increases in value as people congregate around it. The intrinsic value of Facebook, say, to the individual users, increases as its subscription numbers grow, which in turn is reflected in the stock or investment values of these companies. Similarly, traditional media are likely to benefit from this growth and increase in relevance as they open up to contributions by citizens through the use of social media.
Dumisani Moyo of media and elections in Africa, in his paper ‘The New Media as Monitors of Democracy: Mobile Phones and Zimbabwe’s 2008 Election’ argues that the advent of new communications technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones has ushered in a new era of political communication in Zimbabwe where citizens actively participate both in the election campaign and monitoring processes. He looks at these new innovations and their entry into the field of political communication, focusing particularly on the convergence of mobile phones (in particular the SMS or short message service), the Internet and clandestine radio during Zimbabwe’s contested 2008 election. He concludes that these new forms of communication are fast eroding the monopoly of incumbent governments over the communications landscape, therefore undercutting the liberation discourse that has had a stranglehold on election processes, and signaling the possibility of more open political spaces where divergent views can co-exist.
In the 12 African countries covered by the African Elections Project; Ghana (2008), Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Botswana, Namibia, Togo, Malawi, Niger, Guinea, Mozambique, Liberia and Ghana (2012) all of the electoral management bodies maintained their own online presence. Most electoral management bodies, such as Ghana’s electoral commission, used their sites to provide up-to date information on their activities including the provision of tentative election results and actually posted the final results of the 2012 elections in Ghana on their facebook account.
Just as the Electoral Commission of Ghana (2012), Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) introduced a biometric system of voting, which specified that biometric information of voters be registered and verified before voting is allowed.
The IEBC, during the country’s March 4, 2013 elections employed the use of various technologies in carrying out its mandate. With help from Google, the commission launched an interactive map and SMS service for people to effortlessly find their voter registration stations, registration status, and polling station on Election Day. The IEBC established an electronic vote transmission system, which was to facilitate the counting of provisional results. The commission provided real-time results on its website, facebook and twitter pages.
More channels are opening up and more advanced uses such as videos have increased the quantity and also the quality of content that users generate. Commonly referred to as User Generated Content (UGC) or citizen journalism, such audience material has increasingly contributed to news narratives especially when traditional media are unable to bear witness to news events as they unfold. The accuracy of user generated content, although subjected to scrutiny by traditional media norms, may seem to be legitimated when multiple users cover the same subject by providing small pieces of the story that is in turn aggregated to form a reasonable whole.
One of the earliest examples in the African context of harnessing user-generated content in response to crisis situations was the Ushahidi mashup of the 2007 Kenyan election crisis. The project mapped real-time data from emails and text messages to populate online maps that indicated locations where post-election incidents and violence were taking place (Collender et al., 2009). In this case, mobile technology was used to provide content, knowledge and information on issues that required urgent attention.
These were positive outcomes of the use of mobile phones in generating real-time data.
However, there were negative aspects too as they were used to spread hate messages during the same conflict. Zuckerman (2009) outlines the dual role of peacemaking and the propagation of violence which the technology played in the elections, stating that ‘‘One of the most dramatic lessons of the crisis is that technologies useful for reporting and peacemaking are also useful for rumor mongering and incitement to violence’’ (Zuckerman, 2009, pp. 1934). While Oruame (2007) laments the huge amount of money spent on the 2007 Nigerian election to facilitate an error-free process, he argues that the benefits of mobile phone and SMS use during the elections brought about social awareness and greater participation among the people. In his words, ‘‘all these [uses of mobile and SMS technology] can go a long way in letting people be more informed on issues and ultimately getting them to make right choices in a democratic setting’’ (Oruame, 2007). Similarly, Nielsen (2009) suggests that the 2009 South African elections offered more extensive uses of social media, from the raising of campaign funds and donations to direct sending of messages to registered voters.
Lack of access to real-time information, low access to Internet and appropriate bandwidth, lack of capacity for investigative journalism (especially during the elections process), inability to produce balanced reports and low-level user-generated content were some of the major challenges of the media organisations which undertook online news operations. These challenges weighed on the impact of the project in some of the project countries, particularly Mauritania, Guinea, Togo, Malawi and Mozambique.
Ghana’s 2012 elections, for the first time entered a second day of voting due to hitches with the Biometric Verification Devices. Kenya’s IEBC also faced similar difficulties where more than 75% of the Electronic Voter Identification Devices (EVID) failed to work in some urban polling stations forcing the IEBC officials to switch to the manual system.
Most newsrooms encountered by AEP were unable to invest in ICT tools required in the field and in the newsroom. Indeed it was normal to see journalists in the 12 countries we covered using public cyber cafes to file stories, since their newsrooms did not have the basic tools needed for online media (i.e. computers and a stable Internet connection). The lack of cost-effective tools and accessibility to ICTs in the field and the newsroom hampered online journalists from making the desired inroads into more specialized reporting on elections.
Finally, online reporting is driven by the ability to provide timely news. Online audiences demand news anywhere, anytime within a 24-hour news cycle. Unfortunately the lack of fast access to the Internet and barriers such as unavailable electronic versions of articles lead to a low response rate for online content by the news team. For example, most documents were submitted as hard copies (e.g. political party manifestos), which requires that portions of this information be retyped and processed before being fed into the production cycle.
The use of technology and social media to monitor elections and provide media coverage has become an integral part of the election process in Africa. Although online coverage is not as influential as radio, TV and print, it is assuming greater importance not only for domestic audiences, but also for citizens living abroad who have access to cheap and reliable Internet. The project has shown that there are a growing number of journalists with online reporting skills who can contribute to the growth of online elections reporting now and in the future.
Blogging culture is quite low in most of the countries covered, but the use of twitter and Facebook is recording significant growth and there is the need for a social media literacy drive to be undertaken to ensure greater participation by all citizens.
There is the need for project implementers and funders to mainstream social media in their project deployments since it will go a long way to ensure greater beneficial participation in project decision making and implementation.
Finally, appropriate technologies such as digital recorders, cameras, portable outside broadcasting units, high-speed mobile internet access and satellite connections are needed in the newsroom and on the field. These can all go a long way to speed up the uptake of online elections reporting on the continent.