The growing centrality of the digital messaging platform WhatsApp to everyday life and elections in Africa has led to a frenzy of media coverage. Much of this has focused on WhatsApp as a potential channel for what is usually referred to as fake news and how it has changed the way election campaigns are being run.
Some of this hype is justified. In many countries WhatsApp has become the default mode of communication, especially in urban areas. But behind the headlines it is not always clear exactly how much WhatsApp has really changed things, and who has benefitted. Our new research paper draws on surveys and interviews in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Sierra Leone to understand how WhatsApp is shaping politics in Africa.
We warn against the temptation to demonise or idealise WhatsApp. It is unhelpful to simply view the platform as either a source of political turmoil that increases the risks of political instability and election violence, or as a liberation technology that empowers citizens to hold governments accountable. Instead, WhatsApp is best understood as a disruptive technology that challenges existing hierarchies in ways that are simultaneously emancipatory and destructive, strengthening and undermining democracy at the same time.
Making WhatsApp work
One of the most interesting things to come out of our interviews was that the organic power of WhatsApp is often overstated. According to party leaders and candidates, using WhatsApp effectively is hard work. Because WhatsApp groups are capped at 256 people, and you cannot add people if you do not have their number. Using the medium to connect to a vast audience requires significant political organisation.
In Nigeria, for example, the campaign of President Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress was supported by the formation of the Buhari New Media Centre (BNMC) in 2017. The BNMC focused on building networks of locally embedded WhatsApp groups across all 36 Nigerian states. For each state, the BNMC national committee selected a “chapter” leader who would update the centre about developments on the ground and share messages with their local networks. The opposition People’s Democratic Party of Atiku Abubakar responded by setting up its own structure, the Atikulated Youth Force (AYF). With fewer resources at its disposal, the AYF struggled to achieve the same degree of nationwide coverage.
The Nigerian experience is an important reminder that WhatsApp does not simply remove the need to establish formal party structures. Instead, effective use of the platform depends on the existence of these structures. In turn, this gives ruling parties, which typically enjoy greater access to resources, an advantage.
WhatsApp as a disruptive force
Yet while governments enjoy stronger organisations, they can exert less control over WhatsApp than traditional forms of media. Popular messages in particular may take on a life of their own and, because WhatsApp is encrypted, it cannot be monitored and censored in the same ways as newspapers, Twitter and Facebook. As a result, WhatsApp has strengthened the hand of opposition parties and civil society groups that have historically faced repression, and this disrupts the status quo.
While recognising that WhatsApp is often used to spread stories designed to discredit them, opposition leaders were quick to point out how this medium shifted the balance of political communication in their favour. One contender for a local council seat in Oyo State in southwest Nigeria compared the situation with WhatsApp favourably to a former era in which the government monopolised the airwaves. He explained that whereas there used to be no “right of reply” to ruling-party propaganda spread by state-controlled radio and newspapers, WhatsApp made it possible to counter new fake stories while also disseminating anti-government messages. This was not an ideal situation, he admitted, but it did “democratise” the field of political communication.
Opposition candidates and civil society groups also emphasised the usefulness of WhatsApp as a tool of political coordination. Especially at the subnational level, candidates valued the platform more because they could safely use it to discuss campaign strategy with their advisers, than for its potential use in mobilising voters. Although political actors are wary of the risk of moles infiltrating their groups, they see WhatsApp as safer than sending regular texts, emails or voice calls. This echoes the experience of human rights organisations and opposition parties in more repressive environments such as Uganda and Zimbabwe, which used WhatsApp to evade state surveillance while assembling evidence of government misdeeds during recent elections. In this way, the platform has strengthened the position of watchdog bodies and opposition parties.
Taking the rough with the smooth
The encryption that makes WhatsApp so valued among opposition parties is also what makes it such an attractive medium through which to share fake news. Misleading or false messages cannot be traced back to their sender unless you are one of the people that receives them — and even then it is not easy to tell whether the sender created the message or simply shared something they received from someone else. In this way, WhatsApp’s role as liberation technology and a driver of political turmoil cannot be separated.
The destructive potential of misinformation and disinformation is greatest where digital literacy and public trust in political institutions are low, and where intercommunal relations are strained. For example, fake news spread by WhatsApp had a notably different effect in Kano State, northwest Nigeria, which has historically suffered from riots and clashes that have at times followed a religious fault line, than in Oyo State, which is a more ethnically homogenous state and has less of a history of interethnic and religious conflict.
In Kano, political parties often used their social media supporters — self-styled propaganda secretaries — to do their dirty work. This included fairly standard attack ads designed to poke fun at rivals, but also efforts to make it look like rival parties were using violence and messages that played on the religious and ethnic affiliation of candidates, stoking inter-communal tensions. It is easy to see how these kinds of messages can contribute to political instability and electoral violence.
Revolution or regulation
So what can be done to strengthen WhatsApp’s emancipatory promise and minimise its destructive potential? Although there is growing pressure for governments to step up regulation in response to the challenges generated by new technology, such demands are ill-advised in more electoral-authoritarian settings such as Nigeria. Enabling governments with dubious democratic credentials to more effectively censor WhatsApp would not stop the flow of fake news — it would simply grant the ruling party total control over its spread.
In these kinds of contexts the most effective way to mitigate the negative effect of fake news without neutering WhatsApp’s capacity to strengthen democracy is through digital-literacy campaigns that encourage people to critically evaluate the messages they receive and to think harder about what they “forward”. Not only will this reduce the harms flowing from fake news introduced on social media, it will also help to mitigate the power of offline rumours and give citizens the tools they need to hold accountable governments that fail to tell the truth.
Nic Cheeseman is a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham. Jonathan Fisher is the director of the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham. Idayat Hassan is the director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Nigeria. Jamie Hitchen is a freelance researcher.