/ 17 April 2024

Is social media weakening Africa’s democracy?

Uganda's government denies that there is any connection between the tax and the internet shutdowns.
In the long run, Africans need to be more deliberate in governing the impact of new technology by creating regulations before blindly incorporating it into the mainstream. (Fabian Sommer/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The political tradition has always been to campaign for votes through a combination of nationwide rallies, media coverage and papering the streets with posters and banners. These tactics however are well regulated and media organisations, municipalities and independent electoral agencies are able to monitor messaging and even legislate to remove bad actors who mislead and misinform their constituencies. Losers were constrained to these channels to interact with their supporters which meant limited opportunity to discredit results and spread misinformation post elections.

Enter social media

With the advent of social media however, there is a rising pattern in African elections, where losing candidates use social networks to discredit election results without providing substantial evidence of purported fraud. Politicians and political parties are increasingly connecting with their supporters through WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, TikTok, or X (formerly Twitter) to influence public discourse.

They use these channels to predict voting behaviour, formulate campaign strategies, map campaign targets, reinforce party narratives, and promote political socialisation. With the widespread availability of Wi-Fi connectivity and mobile data packages, most citizens, especially Millennials and Generation Z, are constantly online, regularly checking their social media platforms and enabling real-time notifications.

Zimbabwe 2018 – fact versus fiction

Yet, while social media clearly offers mutual benefits for politicians and citizens, we should not underestimate the potential harm unregulated mass communication could cause to functioning democracies.

In my paper, ‘ Social Media, Party Narratives and Supporters’ Opinions – Zimbabwe´s post-2018 Elections’, I demonstrate how losing candidates contested the veracity of Zimbabwe’s 2018 election results and alleged manipulation of results on Facebook and Twitter despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

They consistently dismissed factual evidence that contradicted their narrative: “election rigging caused their defeat”. Similar examples include Zambia in 2016, Kenya in 2016, Zimbabwe in 2018, Nigeria in 2019, and Tanzania in 2020. This pattern spread beyond Africa, as seen in the United States of America (2020) and Brazil (2022).

Africans don’t trust political structures

Due to already existing polarisation and distrust of political structures, these unverified allegations triggered post-election violence in Zimbabwe and the other countries mentioned. The contestants needed two key ingredients to spark the violent responses; first an unquestioning partisan base and second, an unregulated social media platform to share their sentiments.

The research found that those driving the narrative do not always participate in the resulting demonstrations but their rhetoric is extremely dangerous because partisan-motivated reasoning overpowers the pursuit of facts among their supporters.

Elections in most African countries are far from perfect but  a losing candidate spreading conspiracy theories to salve the wounds of defeat exacerbates an already volatile situation and weakens fledgling and fragile democracies.

Make facts cool again

With contestants yielding so much power that their followers willingly engage in violence on their behalf, African citizens need to reevaluate the influence of social media on their psyches. The research shows that in most African countries, there is no incentive for a reasonable fact-based concession by losing candidates.

Firstly, there is little social stigma attached to spreading unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud on social media. Secondly, repeated contentious elections and democratic deficiencies fuels the distrust in the voting public. Finally, a lack of checks and balances in intraparty dynamics allows unregulated spiralling of false narratives. The research also shows that while the effect of false narratives taper off over time, they give momentum to violent public protesting in the immediate aftermath of a loss.

It is spreading like a disease

Although Africa contains 54 sovereign entities, a continental approach is necessary to mitigate this phenomenon. The paper shows that losing candidates are learning from each other as demonstrated by post-election uprisings in Kenya (2016),  Zimbabwe (2018) and Nigeria (2019).

Regional bodies and the African Union need to find ways to disencentivise losing contestants from spreading unsubstantiated allegations on social media. With many countries holding elections in 2024, laws against inciting violent riots should be augmented to curb sore losers.

Similarly, citizens should be discouraged from resorting to violence as a means of addressing disputes over election results. This creates a cultural shift towards social stigma against social media abuse, conspiracy theories, misinformation, fake news, and incitement of violence. Likewise, the electorate should hold political elites accountable for their actions. It is necessary to cultivate a political culture of citizens that value facts over partisan-motivated reasoning.

Better digital governance is key

In the long run, Africans need to be more deliberate in governing the impact of new technology by creating regulations before blindly incorporating it into the mainstream. A good place to start would be to look at the West, where academia, political analysts, civil societies and lawmakers continue to design comprehensive laws to regulate social media at the regional level.

Blessmore Nhikiti is based at the University of Münster, Germany. Her paper, ‘ Social Media, Party Narratives and Supporters’ Opinions – Zimbabwe´s post-2018 Elections’, was presented at the 16th edition of the International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance – ICEGOV 2023 – in Brazil.

The Digital Afrikan This article is part of The Digital Afrikan’s Elections Series – 2024. The Digital Afrikan is a journalism organisation with a mission to drive digital transformation in Africa. Visit our website or contact us on [email protected].