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’?

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