I recently had the privilege of bringing together a few of the leading lights in social media in eastern and southern Africa for a discussion about the role of social media in health and rights activism. The panel formed part of the OpenForum 2012–Money, Power & Sex conference organized by the Open Society Foundation for Southern Africa in collaboration with its sister Open Society Africa Foundations (Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa, Open Society Foundation for South Africa, and Open Society Initiative for West Africa).
The social media panel consisted of Rachel Gichinga, Kenyan blogger and the co-founder of Kuweni Serious; Elsie Eyakuze, a Tanzanian media and political analyst, columnist for the East African newspaper, and blogger at the Mikocheni Report; and Lukonga Lindunda, co-founder of the Bongo Hive in Lusaka—one of around 50 tech hubs on the continent. The discussion was moderated by activist Paula Akugizibwe.
In bringing these folks together I was interested in hearing about the possibilities, tensions, and challenges presented by social media. For example, how much it is used for policy advocacy versus simply applying technology to boost service provision; the potential for mobilization weighed against the dangers of increased surveillance; the dangers of over-exposure and violations of privacy.
What struck me was that each of the participants—each of them new media innovators—emphasized the limitations of working in the online space in their countries, given the small percentages of people with online access (despite the expansion of mobile technology). For example, Gichinga, creator of a platform focused on energizing young, middle-class Kenyans as social and political change-makers, insisted that “you can’t work online without also working offline” and that for all the hype about African tech innovation, the number of genuine online participants remains low. “You don’t start the conversation in the online space,” she said, although “you can continue it there.” She said those working in the social media sphere need to apply a lot more discipline and rigor if they really want to have lasting impact. Lindunda highlighted the proliferation of disparate small-scale, donor-funded projects using mobile technology to help deliver services (such as m-health). All very exciting and innovative, but seldom taken to scale and usually ending abruptly as soon as the initial donors lose interest. Eyakuze also emphasized that in Tanzania online conversations are still limited to a tiny elite.
But despite these cautions, there was also a clear sense of some of the benefits and possibilities offered by online participation. Possibilities which are likely to increase as bandwidth opens up and costs continue to drop. While Lindunda could not point to a clear role for social media in political activism in Zambia yet, he has seen it being used to mobilize consumer boycotts of, of all things, a cellphone company. He also mentioned that a mobile app is under construction to enable Zambians to read the draft constitution on their phones (see here, for example), following the Nigerian example.
Although Gichinga underlined the limitations of online activism, she still felt it was important—with many of those people who did take some sort of online action, often becoming increasingly politically involved. “I don’t know that so-called ‘slacktivism’ exists,” she said.
Elsie Eyakuze felt that even in the still constricted Tanzanian context, “social media can be used in a mind-boggling number of ways.” For example, activists sometimes use Twitter as part of a “buddy system”: tweeting to their networks if they have been arrested, mobilizing support, and ensuring they don’t just disappear into the system. Of course as much as activists and marginalized groups can use social media for organizing and solidarity, the state can also use it for surveillance and control.
Eyakuze said a number of the younger MPs and Ministers are on Twitter, and this creates the possibility for direct contact with citizens. She said she herself also uses social media to test and push the limits of free expression in Tanzania.
I look forward to seeing more from these social media leaders in the future.