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A brief recap of the recent Beyond the Hashtag symposium on social media in Africa. The symposium was convened at the University of Edinburgh by SMS:Africa, a three-year ESRC-DFID-funded project housed in the Centre of African Studies.

Social Media pic

Photo by Tom Molony and Maggie Dwyer of SMS:Africa

As the continent with the youngest population worldwide, Africa is poised to drive social media use in innovative ways that have global ramifications.  In countries like Namibia, the number of mobile phone subscriptions exceeds the entire population.  Meanwhile, a number of authoritarian governments (Cameroon constituting a recent prominent example) have recognized the risks posed by the rapid spread of social media use and restricted access to online communications.

Studies of the dynamic phenomenon of social media use in Africa are nascent.  Filling this void, the ESRC-funded Social Media and Security in Africa (SMS:Africa) project seeks to provide a timely understanding of the increasingly prominent role social media plays in documenting and driving (in)security across the continent.

Under the auspices of the project, and with additional support from DFID, the Centre of African Studies and the Centre for Security Research at the University of Edinburgh, a two-day symposium, ‘Beyond the Hashtag: Social Media in Africa,’ convened to discuss the opportunities and risks the explosion in Africa’s social media use (which increased by nearly 50% in 2016) presents for a range of actors, including civil society, educators, politicians, and businesses.

Mirroring the rapid rise in social media use in Africa, we were delighted with the response to our call for submissions.  Due to overwhelming demand, we extended the symposium from a one to two-day event, with six panels and 20 speakers covering a diverse array of topics.  Amidst a plethora of critical insights, the symposium identified three critical issues to watch as social media continues to evolve across the digital landscape:

#Digital Legitimacy

Following the post-2011 democratic awakening in North Africa, the general narrative around social media use has reflected a belief that it is an unquestionably positive force.  However, participants at the Beyond the Hashtag Symposium suggested the need for a more nuanced perspective.  Florencia Enghel pondered, ‘if digital technology is the answer, what is the question?’

Jean-Benoît Falisse highlighted the harsh tactics that leading social media personalities representing political factions in Burundi have employed amidst the low-intensity conflict that emerged following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s push for a constitutionally questionable third term.  Pete Chonka noted the far-reaching implications of the struggles of the new central government in Somalia to compete with the slick media productions of Al-Shabaab.

#Digital Protests

Charlotte Cross, observed that a large number of African governments have restricted social media access during election campaigns.  As African nations are increasingly constrained in their ability to engage in traditional forms of repression, social media is becoming an increasingly contentious frontier of interaction.

Alisha Patel noted that while social media generally reflects a greater criticism of government policies than print media, many users tweet or post into a void, failing to reach a significant audience as they articulate their views.  In southern Africa however, social media fuelled protests have enjoyed significant success.  Jacob Geuder noted the fundamental importance of social media to the success of the #FeesMustFall student movement in Cape Town while George Karekwaivanane observed a similar foundation behind the short-lived success of #ThisFlag in Zimbabwe.

#Digital Criticism

A thread common to a number of speakers was the tendency of social media users to operate in ‘echo chambers’, rarely interacting with users who hold opinions different from their own, thereby minimizing opportunities to build consensus across political divides.

However, several speakers pointed to the impressive results of ‘digilantism’ (digital vigilantism).  Kenya in particular stands out as a leader of the drive to reframe the Western narrative of Africa through online activity.  Ruth Cookman highlighted the tenacity of Kenyan users of the image messaging app, Snapchat, in combatting stereotypical views of Nairobi, while Toussaint Nothias noted the success of #SomeoneTellCNN, which resulted in the newscaster issuing an apology for the tone of its coverage on the east African country.

Conclusion

Africa is home to seven of the top ten fastest growing internet populations.  While much has been said about the theoretical potential of digital technology to transform Africa’s economic position, Africans are currently employing social media to redefine traditional Western views of their realities as their governments are controversially confronting the reconfigurations engendered by the rise of social media.  While it may be too early to forecast the future of social media as a successful tool for political and social change, early indications from Africa point to its continued presence as a key driver and shaper of political discourse on a local, regional, and global stage.

 

Thomas Molony and Maggie Dwyer are leading the SMS: Africa project, part of the ESRC-DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research. Molony is a Senior Lecturer in African Studies at the University of Edinburgh.  Dwyer is a Research Fellow at the same institution.  Brooks Marmon is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and managing editor of Postgrads from the Edge.

 

 

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