SOCIAL MEDIA AND ELECTIONS IN TANZANIA: What makes a political post popular on social media?

Nape Nnauye, MP for Mtama with President John Magufuli at State House. Mr Nape had gone to ask President Magufulil for forgiveness over his recent ‘unbecoming” remarks. PHOTO | FILE

Following our last month’s article on fake news in social media, this month we extend our analysis by looking at what makes a political post popular on social media. This question emanates from an observation that some political posts become more popular than others. However, delving into this, we need to ask how do we measure that a post is popular or not? There are a number of ways to gauge popularity including: (i) number of times the post has been disseminated – through shared, liked, retweeted, reposted, screenshot and spread onto other platforms; (ii) reactions from the government – whether explicitly or implicitly; (iii) public engagement – discussion of the same outside of social media such as in the streets, vijiwe (social gatherings), bars and traditional media such as in radio and newspapers.

A political post can be popular due to various factors such as the content of the post, the timing of the post, the person who posted it and the language (in the context of Tanzania – Kiswahili) and also the use of informal/’street’ tone matters in forming an attractive rhetoric and the scope of public engagement. The content depends on timing or the context; in particular, the political context and the public mood at the time. Considering social media works in real time, the public mood has to be captured as fast as possible if the post is to gain popularity and stay relevant for a considerable time to allow persistence against time as other posts continue to flow.

Persistence depends on how much the post is shared through likes, re-share, retweet, screenshot, or hashtagged. Individuals are becoming increasingly reliant on others in their social media networks for news as well as political information.

It is also acknowledged that their “knowledge, opinions, and behaviors are affected by the information stream and social dynamics within these sites” (Weeks et al, 2014, p.214) which means that if an individual comes across a post that they appreciate, they are more likely to share it, which results to more visibility and greater likelihood of the post being further disseminated and gaining further popularity.

Sharing posts via screenshots is crucial, where we see a popular tweet or an Instagram post has been screenshot and spread via WhatsApp groups. Taking an example of the recent incidence where a famous and arguably controversial politician, Nape Nnauye, apologized to the President, the content made the associated posts popular on different levels: first, the brief video clip of Mr. Nnauye walking to the State House that was accompanying the posts led to multiple interpretations.

The public discussed and interpreted the video clip of the ‘famous walk’ on various platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Jamii Forum.

Mainstream media took this up aggressively. Notably, the famous radio personality Maulid Kitenge on EfM radio took his listeners through newspaper coverage of the same with a humorous touch focusing on the famous ‘short but hard walk towards forgiveness’. This content received such massive attention out of the political context where there seemed to be internal tensions within the ruling political party CCM – from which it came to the public knowledge that certain party former leaders and elders were not happy. This context triggered suspicion, rumors and predictions, which explains the attention that the posts received and the popularity it got.

The persistence was from the attention it received and the extent to which it was shared. There was also a government reaction. The Speaker of the Parliament, for example, congratulated Mr Nnauye for apologizing to the President.

Another factor that may make a political post popular is the person who posted or shared the post. In Tanzania, certain addresses are popular include those that represent certain media platforms such as Jamii Forum and Millard Ayo. There are also official accounts such as of the State House spokesperson, Gerson Msigwa, whose posts on announcing new appointments and/or suspension from office have become popular.

When Msigwa posts a letter on his Twitter account, the letter is shared across different platforms and mainstream media picks it. The public usually waits for his posts. If there are any rumors of the President’s fallout with any official, people will be waiting for Msigwa’s post. Nevertheless, there are also individual influencers whose posts become popular and attract discussions in various other platforms. A note may be made on polarization, as explained in our first article in July, whereby there are individual accounts that are considered to be leaning towards opposition views whilst others are known to be sympathizing with the regime and those who are in power.

Posts from these accounts are usually popular and trigger debates from the two “camps”. Interestingly, there are individual accounts that become popular to the extent of being deterministic. Determinism, which is one of the setbacks social media has in bringing political change, is directly linked to ‘personalization’.

‘Personalization’ is a “process in which the political weight of the individual actor in the political process increases over time, while the centrality of the political group declines” (Rahat and Sheafer, 2007, p.65).

The individual actor’s post may become more popular than a post from an institutional address. Thus, there is a clear shift in attention from political parties to particular individual politicians results in more focus on the individual politician’s competences, private lives and emotional (Adam and Maier, 2010). The public waits for the individual actor to post, which in turn determines political discussion of the day or time. One only has to think of President Trump in relation to this.

Although social media can be regarded as a grassroots form of journalism and a way to shape democracy outside the conventional party politics (Nardi et al, 2004), the danger lies, as we indicated in our August article, on fake news. The government may have to react to such, which is a debatable issue with regards to democracy- for example when it has to deal with a parody individual. The government is, thus, found in a checkmate position especially given the post-truth era (Fish, 2016) whereby using lies as a political tool has led to public mistrust of both public institutions and politicians.

An example of such a situation is a recent post of the existence of Ebola in Tanzania, whereby a popular individual actor posted that there is a person in Tanzania who died of Ebola. This led to a government reaction whereby the Minister had to deny that there is Ebola in the country. The public fails to decide on whom they should trust – the government or the individual actor.

This leads to a dilemma.Vraga et al (2016) show that individuals may find it difficult to delineate between what is social, news and political information via social media. Despite such ambiguities, it can be asserted that the nascent phenomenon of popular political posts by certain individuals is redefining politics and political processes in many countries, including Tanzania.

  • Aikande C. Kwayu is an honorary research fellow at the Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin.
  • MadisonDr Banita Lal is a Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Management at Bedford-shire Business School, University of Bedfordshire.
  • Yogesh K. Dwivedi is a Professor of Dig-ital Marketing and Innovation Swansea University, Wales