A couple of weeks back I had the privilege of being able to bring 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 a meeting titled OpenForum 2012 – Money, Power & Sex: The paradox of unequal growth. Organised by the Open Society Foundation for Southern Africa in collaboration with its sister Open Society Africa Foundations (OSIEA – Eastern Africa, OSF-South Africa and OSIWA – West Africa), the meeting brought together an eclectic mix of activists, academics, artists and policy-makers to talk about “the factors driving change on the continent and how these will influence the African democracy, development, human rights and governance agendas over the next decade” – to quote the conference programme. (Full disclosure – I work for the Open Society Foundations, in its Public Health Program.)
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 (highly recommended reading for lots more detail on the Open Forum); 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 opened 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 mobilise 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 (inspired by the The Nigerian Constitution App).
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 whether that so-called ‘slactivism’ 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. And she herself also uses social media to test and push the limits of free expression in Tanzania.