Twitter is the new kissing babies

In just a few days time 14 million people in my adopted home of Kenya will go to the polls.  These elections are remarkable on a number of levels: they are the first polls since independence in which Kenyans can vote for a number of elected officers from President to Women’s Representative; they are the first under a new constitution which offers more devolved power sharing and they are the first to have national televised debates.  For those in Western democracies the latter is nothing new.  To the average Kenyan this is a milestone in the democratic process and a sign of how far governance has evolved. For the first time all 8 presidential candidates faced questioning from moderators and members of the public on the same platform.

A boy watches the first presidential debate on a giant screen erected in a city park in Nairobi

Good governance is measured by a level of transparency and accountability. Advances in technology and social media participation particularly in the developing world are often seen as a crucial tool in extending democratic space, increasing transparency and promoting accountability. However the corollary of this argument is that there becomes what Lievrouw refers to as a blurring of the distinction between the ‘material’ and ‘symbolic’ use of the technology.  Put another way, “use of new media might in fact constitute movements and actions in themselves” (Lievrouw 2011: 157). Are we in danger then of assuming that the deployment of social media platforms in election campaigns or as part of social movements are by definition relevant because they are innovative? Is the impact and significance of ‘old media’ in the form of a television debate for example,  neatly juxtaposed with our embrace of ‘technological determinism’?

Prior to the debates #KE2013 and #KEdecides was trending worldwide on Twitter.  Unsurprising perhaps given that Kenyans are the second most tweeting country in Africa (apologies for bad grammar!). However it would be wrong to ignore the significance of this in an era where no Kenyan leaders communication strategy is complete without a Facebook presence and a handle on twitter. 

Governance globally is measured against an agreed set of six indicators  The first indicator, ‘Voice and Accountability’ is one which provides the impetus for many development interventions in developing countries. The fact that so many development actors are using social media tools to engage populations is indicative of the extent to which the practice of politics has relied on “the possible dominance of communication over politics” (Inaki Garcia Blanco in Carpentier, Pruulman eds 2006) or what became known in Western political circles as ‘spin’.  Form follows function or in this case form follows content.  Hence the title of this post…

The importance of voice and accountability to the governance agenda is clear – without an informed and engaged citizenry the government cannot be held to account.  A key actor in this mechanism is the media therefore many interventions focus on building the capacity of media to perform its role as the ‘fourth estate’ in developing countries.  However it is the deployment of social media by the political elite and the citizenry that has changed the communication landscape and created what Tina Askanius referred as “new repertoires for action and visibilities but also new risks and tensions”. (The binaries Lievrouw refers to).

For me the ‘risks and tensions’ are tantalisingly problematized in the literature around social media and its role in deepening governance.  The dominant and overwhelming perspective is the inherent ‘good’ emanating from engagement with social media tools –  a new democratic weapon in the war against big government, tyranny and misinformation.  What Frank Webster paraphrased by Lievrouw (2011:160) described as “presentism” – “the tendency to look at ones own time as unusually significant and overlook continuities with the past”.  However I concur with the view that claiming social media as the new frontier in the battle to influence and change development outcomes, is perhaps a little premature. Whilst there is good evidence that it has been deployed in all kinds of development contexts – providing access to markets, mobile money or extending local governance through monitoring service delivery – it can be argued that in some contexts social media can reinforce existing inequalities.

The GSDRC a partnership of research institutes, think-tanks and consultancy organisations with expertise in governance, social development, humanitarian and conflict issues argues that we assume the neutrality of social media at our cost: “While recent discussion on the political impact of social media has centered on the power of mass protests to topple governments, social media’s real potential may lie in supporting civil society and the public sphere”. It seems almost unfashionable to talk about the digital divide these days when mobile phones are so ubiquitous even in very poor countries. This overused phrase  is powerfully critiqued by Pieterse (2005:14) – “bridging the digital divide is like mopping with the tap open” –  as being less about access to technology and more about socio-economic inequalities and drivers of capitalism. However if we subscribe to the view explored by Witschege (Camerts & Carpentier 2007: 130) that those who are in media dark areas stand to gain the most from engagement with social media platforms, then we must be prepared to critique the “exclusionary mechanisms” which are also at work.




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