Social media: New political weapon in Africa

The fall of dictatorial regimes in Egypt and Tunisia has largely been attributed to social media collaboration.

In the wake of the protests, Internet experts have been quick to point out that social media might be the saviour of Africa’s search for democracy in general and Southern Africa in particular in the not-so- distant future.

Sceptics have been cynical of the assertion that social media networks, mainly Facebook and Twitter, will not impact in Africa as in Europe and the United States because of low Internet penetration rates.

But Brian Mungei, a prominent Kenyan blogger, thinks 2011 is the year of the social media:

“The trend was already set in 2009, picked up pace in 2010 and I highly doubt this year (2011) will be any different. It’s almost a surety that there will be an increase in the use of the current main social media platforms namely Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and blogs by both individuals and organisations.”

Mungei adds: “The trend of increasing Internet access due to the penetration of the mobile Web speaks for this. The Egyptian revolution story will make more leaders aware of the power of social media and the highly unpredictable youth who dominate the platforms.”

Thamu Dube, a social media expert based in the UK, says the same situation could happen with Zimbabwe by all means.

“Egypt and Zimbabwe are mirrors of each other in two respects. Both have a high rate of Internet penetration and both have highly literate populations. The conditions necessary for social media to be a catalyst are all there. Cheap mobile broadband, a proliferation of feature phones and Internet-connected hardware means that information can be disseminated quickly and accurately in viral form. The question is no longer if but simply when.”

Since the inception of the Web there have been huge changes in how media is consumed and produced.
At the forefront of this media evolution is social media – a participatory phenomenon that is no longer being used by a few but by many.

However nearer home, there is an increased fear, although muted, on what the Zimbabwean government is capable of doing in light of the new-found power of the Internet which is largely unaffected and uncontrolled by draconian laws.

In June last year Econet Wireless, the country’s largest mobile phone operator, faced a closure threat for allegedly allowing the Movement for Democratic Change to campaign on its network through a toll-free interactive service.

A state media columnist Nathaniel Manheru, believed to be President Robert Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba, wrote then: “The next polls will be fought on the waves, which is why Econet, and its card-carrying owner, Strive Masiyiwa, are so critical to the MDC-T.

“We wait for a new propaganda service, which MDC-T seeks to unveil on June 14, using Masiyiwa’s network, through a toll-free facility. Thank God cellular licences are up for renewal and government has to deal with all manner of mischief.”

A year before that the same mobile service provider had been accused of alleged involvement in politics by offering a toll-free facility where a subscriber gets daily news roundups, updates on MDC-T’s rallies, the party’s position on the constitution-making process and a message from the party president Morgan Tsvangirai.

The MDC-T has dubbed the new platform The Voice of Real Change and said it would herald a new era in communication “at a time when the so-called public broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, has shamefully become a conveyor of Zanu PF propaganda”.

The fear is that now that the Internet is obviously unregulated, people are becoming more expressive and have found a new platform to vent their anger on government officials.

Recently media reports picked on a spat between controversial musician Viomak and Zimbabwe’s Tourism minister Walter Mzembi.

Mzembi was infuriated by the musician’s branding of Zanu PF as a party of “murderers and thieves”.

Mzembi is said to having shot back: “Shame on you, you have lost the last thread of decent engagement.”

And in light of the recent dispute over the post of the presidency of MDC-M between Arthur Mutambara and Welshman Ncube, the latter has benefited immensely from the views of people on his Facebook wall with over 200 people posting comments.

Joseph Kamunda, an ICT expert, said it was not surprising that Africa was finding a voice on social media networks and most on mobile Internet as shown by North Africa.

“The Next Generation Telecoms Africa Summit recently held in Nairobi, Kenya, showed that mobile data and applications (inclusive is mobile Internet) usage has grown and Zimbabwe was also mentioned,” he said.

Africa’s data usage grew by 331% last year — the highest of any region – with South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya and Ghana making the top five countries in terms of page views.

SA and Nigeria made it to the top 10 globally, ahead of the US and Brazil. In addition,countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe have registered impressive growths in terms of page view growth at 4 900% and 2 300% respectively.

Analysts warn: “It is a good thing but African dictators do not watch events like these unfold unchecked.”

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