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Digital democracy still a long way off in Africa; it takes more than tech

Tuesday March 30 2021
Digital pic
By Nic Cheeseman

From the mid-2000s onwards, the digital revolution raised hopes of democratic transformation and strengthening in Africa. But it hasn’t quite turned out like that. Now, almost a decade after the “Arab Spring”, techno-optimism has given way to techno-pessimism.

African leaders have proved able to blunt the transformative potential of smart phones through censorship and internet shutdowns. When the internet is on, social media attracts more attention for spreading fake news than preventing election rigging.

What was once thought of as “liberation technology” has turned out to be remarkably compatible with the maintenance of the status quo. Or has it? Does this more pessimistic reading overlook genuine progress?

A new publication I co-edited with Lisa Garbe – Decoding #DigitalDemocracy in Africa – draws together the latest research on the extent to which digital technology has changed Africa … and the ways in which Africa is changing digital technology.

The articles show that we should not miss the wood for the trees: despite disappointment, digital technology has had profound impacts on African politics and society. But, they also highlight how much more needs to be known about digital technology on the continent.

A lot of recent analysis has focused on the digital divide in Africa, and the many people excluded from online access by poverty and lack of coverage.

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Yet researchers have also found that closing this divide cannot be achieved by cheaper technology alone. Using digital technology to access information and resources is only possible when a set of political, legal, and economic conditions are in place.

For example, the content that citizens can access increasingly depends on giant tech companies, especially for poorer citizens. In his contribution on Facebook’s Free Basics - a service that provides basic online services without data charges - Toussaint Nothias explains that tech corporations’ dominant position enables them to shape how individuals use the internet under the pretence of making it more affordable.

This raises tough questions about whether multinational companies engage ethically in Africa. As Julie Owono’s contribution points out, Facebook has been accused of “dumping” products such as Free Basics, stymieing the production of local alternatives. This has raised concerns of a fresh “scramble for Africa”, with multinational companies expending more energy and resources in securing new users than tackling hate speech and misinformation.

From the recent “virtual protest” in Zambia to #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, the potential of social media to empower dissenting voices is clear.

Idayat Hassan and Jamie Hitchen’s analysis of WhatsApp and Facebook use ahead of elections in The Gambia shows that even in rural areas with limited connectivity, social media content contributes to offline political mobilisation.

It is important not to lose sight of this more positive impact amid the growing focus on fake news and hate speech.

Sadly, though, further problems are on the horizon. Azeb Madebo reveals how the Ethiopian diaspora has fuelled the polarisation between the Oromo community on the one hand, and the Ethiopian government and Ethiopian nationalists on the other.

Not all fake news is believed of course, but when stories play into widely held fears, prejudices and assumptions, they can exacerbate distrust and encourage a cycle of violence.

It is, therefore, significant that there is relatively little regulation of content moderation. Julie Owono shows that in part this can be attributed to the limited local capacity of content providers such as Facebook or Twitter. Neither has invested heavily in African experts capable of identifying fake news and hate speech circulated on their platforms.