Social Media as Disruptive Technologies in an Era of Fake News: Examining the Efficacy of Social Media in the Shaping of the Political Landscape in Africa

Social Media as Disruptive Technologies in an Era of Fake News: Examining the Efficacy of Social Media in the Shaping of the Political Landscape in Africa

Osée Kamga (InSitu Services Linguistiques, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1791-8.ch010
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Since the Arab Spring (2010-2012), there has been a growing interest in the transformative power of social media, with a number of studies looking at its power to mobilize hitherto silent majority of the people, its ability to spread information at a lightning speed or to shape government-citizen relationship. This chapter is part of that trend, and it focuses specifically on Sub-Saharan Africa. It borrows Christensen's concept of “disruptive technologies” and uses it as a framework to analyze the processes of social media appropriation in the political field in that part of the continent. The chapter articulates ways in which social media are transforming the political landscape in the region and wonders about the outcome of these processes in the backdrop of the emerging and spreading of fake news.
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There is a consensus that social media played an essential role in the uprisings that started in December 2010, led to the overthrown of dictators in the Arab world and shook up many autocratic regimes in the world (Rezaei and Cohen, 2012). Since then, thanks to growing mobile penetration and improved connectivity, social media have gained a prominent place in the political arena in sub-Saharan Africa. Messages, documents, photos and videos shared on these platforms reach the world at the speed of light, thus making them an instrument of choice for political activism and mobilization. Everywhere on the continent, Africans, especially the younger generation, are using social media to push for change. As they facilitate citizens’ involvement in political debate, as well as the public’s push for more transparency in the political process, social media have been perceived as a threat by some governments (Dwyer and Molony, 2019). For instance, in March 2018, the Republic of Chad banned social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter (The ban was lifted in 16 months later). Adegoke (2017) rightfully notes that “social media has been so influential and consequential in the lives of young Africans over the last five years that some governments now target social media specifically for blockages around elections and political protests”. The general assumption is that “the use of social media tools has high potential for purposes of bringing about political and social change throughout the continent as use thereof enhances opportunities for political participation and opens new spaces for active citizenship” (Bohler-Muller and van der Merwe, 2011: 1). In short, a number of scholars continue to portray the positivity of social media for effective governance on the continent.

There are, however, other scholars who have expressed some caution about the positive impact of social media on the continent. To these scholars, there are a number of problems associated with the use of social media, which may impact on the overall development of the continent. In short, to these scholars, social media on the continent has not been all that positive. For instance, Cox et al. (2019) have noted that while social media has contributed to “economic development and encouraged political engagement”, it has “also led to a number of less desirable impacts”. Part of these fewer desirable impacts has been attributed to the emergence and spreading of fake news, with serious consequences on people perceive and understand things. For instance, in a the heat of the 2018 presidential campaign in Cameroun, a video appeared on Facebook showing a group of soldiers savagely beating up a boy who appeared to be not older than 10 years, with the caption: “That’s how our soldiers treat a boy just because he said Kamto president”. Although, there were repression against supporters of Kamto, the leader of the main opposition party in the country, researching the video with just few mouse clicks, showed that not only was the video an old clip (recorded in 1995), but also that event took place, not in Cameroun but in Conakry, the capital city of the Republic of Guinea. Yet, the discussions following the post were largely made of angry interventions, vilifying the Cameroonian government. This example illustrates the double standard observed in how Africans are using social media.

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