The increasing use and adoption of social media platforms in Tanzania such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and JamiiForums, has changed how people socialise and organise themselves. On matters of politics, social media is thought to facilitate new forms of political participation and means of imagining new political futures. Given this potential, citizens, politicians and political parties have turned their attention to social media platforms to advance their political agenda.
Nevertheless, the idea of social media as an emerging political space is still a contestable aspect among enthusiasts and critics of social media. To settle the argument between the enthusiasts and critics, one must consider the context to understand the role and influence of social media as a political space. In Tanzania, for example, there is a temporal ban of political parties to carry out public meeting and rallies from 2016.
Under such a context, it is important to explore if social media is becoming an alternative to political rallies. To do this, will not only help us to know whether social media is used for politics or not but it also helps us to understand the role it plays over time and in changing circumstances.
There are different perspectives on the potential of social media to influence politics with the enthusiastic side viewing social media as disruptive and emancipatory while critics suggest social media is hegemonic. Each of them- critics and enthusiasts – has strong arguments. Enthusiasts have evidence that social media has assisted in democratic processes such as in the Obama campaign and arguably, the Arab Spring.
On the other side, critics use examples such as that of Cambridge Analytica issue, where social media has been used to undermine democratic processes. These different examples underscore how technology including social media is neutral. Thus, showing the impact of social media to be dependent on the affordances provided by social media.
Neutrality and affordances further underscore the role of context in determining the efficiency of social media. This can be explained through PMP (Politics-Media-Politics) principle, which explains the role of media in politics using contextual lenses. The PMP principle views the role of media as imbricative – meaning that changes in political practices lead to changes in media performance, which leads to further political changes in the political environment. With the banning political rallies in Tanzania, this principle would suggest a change in the role of social media, which in turn affects politics. Thus the question remains, to what extent has a temporal ban on political rallies and overall shrinking civic space in Tanzania influenced the role of social media in defining the subsequent political activities?
While a temporal ban on political rallies is a potential reason for shifting political activities to social media platforms, the impact of this shift to political parties is still undetermined. Oftentimes, debates on democratic potential of social media platforms are constrained by the attention of individual agency with assumption that individual participation and realisation of the politics of self will connect people with a wider movement where significant political transformation and social change can happen. This might not be the case. It is arguable that the Mange Kimambi online campaigns prior to April 26th planned demonstrations was the case in point of high expectation of an individual agency. Literature shows that an individual can actually undermine the collective efforts. Thus social media can affect internal politics of collective groups such as political parties through self-centred forms of communication. In light of that, the assumption that social media reinforces collective creativity of social movement is sometimes challenged.
In concluding, it is crucial to further assess the assumption that social media is a more efficient democratic tool than the traditional media (due to heavy control and regulations by the government). This assumption is so far flawed and deterministic. The impact of social media is hugely entwined with social and technical agencies which suggest context as lens of understanding the role of social media especially in political phenomena.
Thus to understand the role of social media, one needs to understand the context as well as to monitor the activities taking place on social media platforms over a period of time since some of activities are invisible and to note their impact, time is essential.
Dr Aikande C. Kwayu is a political scientist and consultant at Bumaco Ltd. Web: www.aikandekwayu.com