Social media as a tool for measuring political polarization

Ruling party, CCM’s, offices at Lumumba Street in Dar es Salaam. There is need to explore how social media has changed Tanzania’s political landscape. PHOTO | FILE

Inclusive communities are key not only for promotion of democracy but also for a healthy economy and for enhancing equality and equity for all.

Inclusivity in politics is a matter of peace and security. Tanzania boosts inclusivity in many aspects most visibly in the sense of nationhood regardless of tribes.

As a result, the country came to be known as Island of Peace given its ability to remain peaceful in an unstable region and fighting neighbors.

Nevertheless, there have been a sense of incremental division and arguably increasing polarization between people of different political affiliations.

Partisan feelings among society members is apparently spreading.

There have been many manifestations of this salient polarization. Polarization is a politically sensitive phenomenon because it creates division in the society that can lead to exclusion and exacerbates hindrances to democracy.

One of the visible reflections of emergent aspects of polarization can be gauged through social media.

Interactions in social media have mirrored partisan and polarization among citizens.

In December 2018, Kwayu in an article here indicated the partisan use of hashtags.

It has further been discussed by (Gonzalez-Bailon et al., 2010) that political discussions in online networks are larger and deeper in comparison of other forms of networks.

Grover et al (2018) show us how social media can underscore the polarization in party politics in particular during elections time, which is facilitated by acculturation of ideologies among geographically dispersed voters.

This is crucial since polarization, both as a process and situation (DiMaggio et al, 1996), can make it difficult for citizens to establish a consensus that is central to the nation’s development and sustainable peace.

Social media use in Tanzania is a right space for measuring the degree of division among citizens in political arena.

Social media brings people together, who have never met physically, to generate and exchange their ideas and opinions on different matters. It, thus, has a force to unite people of the same opinion against others of different opinions.

In JamiiForums, for example, we have observed two labelling that reflects partisan affiliation.

Other related examples are Vijana wa Lumumba vs Vijana wa Ufipa - highlighting two different youth groups between the opposition Chadema and the ruling CCM.

These two labelling have been used to categorize opinions that are perceived and interpreted to be flowing from a certain party camp. On Twitter, there are some hashtags that are used only by people who are critical to government actions in that those who sympathize with the government would not use them, so are those that have been used by government sympathizers. Example of those are #ChangeTanzania and #TutaelewaTu vs. #MATAGA and #Tunatekeleza reflecting critics and sympathizers, respectively.

As we are moving towards general elections in 2020, social media use will be further amplified given the technological trends in the world and contemporary campaigning and organizing tools.

The systematic use of social media in political campaign is also attracting much attention in academia and media.

New right wing parties in Europe, for example, have been successful in creating division as mobilizing tool through social media (Loucaids 2019). Mainstream parties across the world are learning and adopting these techniques.

For example, in recently concluded Indian elections, both mainstream parties aggressively utilized social media for attracting and engaging citizens with their campaign by utilizing contrasting hashtags. The Indian National Congress (INC) first started using #choukidarchorhai (implying then PM Narendra Modi as a corrupt person).

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) responded by counter hashtag campaign #MainBhiChowkidar, which was launched by Prime Minister Modi on March 16. Subsequently, PM Modi along with his party candidates, leaders and followers changed their name on Twitter to add the prefix ‘Chowkidar’, which was removed only after announcement of election outcome.

These two contrasting hashtags contributed substantially in determining Indian election outcomes.

It is thus predictable that candidates and party followership in Tanzania will be a significant variable in not only gauging voters’ preferences but also highlighting the levels of polarization as it will be observed through exchanges and interactions between followers of one candidate or party and another.

To get to that level of precise measurement, it will be crucial to start observing the trends from now on. Further interest will also be building up with the December 2019 local government elections, which will be taken as an indicator to general elections’ performance.

Social media, like many other technologies, can be a force for good or bad. In Tanzania, social media can be a force for maintaining inclusivity and the national consciousness or a dividing force.

This is partly because social media platforms are free and are therefore widely accessible across socioeconomic classes (Joseph, 2012) as well as political parties affiliations.

Indeed, with the proliferation of mobile phones and consequent access to Internet in Tanzania, people from various classes and also different political preferences all use social media.

In Tanzania, approximately 81 per cent of the population has access to a phone and 43 per cent of those have access to the Internet (TCRA, 2018).

It is in this context that social media can be a tool through which the levels of polarization can be measured in Tanzania.

Understandably, the Economics discipline has a way of measuring polarization but it is limited as it focuses on divisions in economic gains and ability to generate which is based on a closed network of people based on their ethnic or other affiliations.

In socio-political aspect, polarization is viewed on the basis of nascent trend to be intolerant to different political views that leads to “we” vs. “others”. “Othering” is the face of polarization. Measuring is the first stage towards recommendations for attracting the positive uniting force of social media. This is especially because social media is a mutual construction from the society.

It is as much as a product of the content in the society as much as it can also influence the content of the very society.

Considering above discussion, our main recommendation for Tanzanian political parties is to first carefully conduct sentiment analysis to identify the issues that citizens are currently discussing and then devise social media campaigns to engage with them.

Social media campaigns should be informed by reality of and sensitive to voters’ concerns and desires. Political parties should carefully monitor acculturation of ideologies (which can result in polarization) and where possible should launch counter campaign to diffuse such developments.

We should have objective and neutral /national online campaign to counter any discussion that instigates polarization to maintain the national consciousness.

Aikande C. Kwayu is an honorary research fellow at the Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin Madison

Dr Banita Lal is a Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Management at Bedfordshire Business School, University of Bedfordshire

Yogesh K. Dwivedi is a Professor of Digital Marketing and Innovation Swansea University, Wales