July 16th, 2012
10:22 AM ET

Four ways social media could transform conflict in Africa

Editor's note: Gabrielle Ramaiah is a Ph.D. student in Government at Harvard University. Jason Warner is a Ph.D. student in African Studies and Government at Harvard University. The views expressed are solely those of the authors.

When Kenya invaded Somalia in October 2011 to oust destabilizing Al Shabaab insurgent elements there, the international community paid scant attention. Apparently more newsworthy was the “Tweet-off” a couple of months later between the Kenyan Army’s spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir and a spokesman for Al Shabaab that touched on issues as mundane as goat killings and as contentious as the ethical permissibility of war tactics. The episode was a reminder not only of the prevalence of the internet even in the world’s failed states, but, more importantly, it underscored how social media might be used as a tool in the conduct of international wars – or in the pursuit of peace.

Here are four ways social media could change the face of conflict in Africa and throughout the developing world:

1. Social media platforms could help reduce civilian conflict casualtiesby serving as early warning systems, helping citizens stay connected to humanitarian organizations, and keeping citizens secure in the aftermath of crimes. For instance, in the turmoil of Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence, a blogger’s plea for real time information on political deaths led to the creation of Ushahidi (or “testimony,” in Swahili), a platform that allows people to send tweets, SMS text, or web-based messages sharing the location and nature of outbreaks of violence. This Twitter and mobile based violence reporting platform offers certain improvements over traditional media outlets’ coverage, and has since been used to track conflict trends in the lead-up to South Sudan’s independence, as well as instances of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa. In terms of crime mitigation, a Kenyan village chief claims to have drastically reduced crime rates in his community by sending out Tweets instructing citizens what to do in the aftermath of insecurity.

However, internet connectivity, let alone social media, still doesn’t existin some of the most underdeveloped places in Africa and throughout the global south. And, although Africa has shown itself to be the fastest growing global market for internet connectivity, internet penetration rates remain low enough not to be a surefire way to stem violence.

2. Social media could make African states more sensitive to audience costs(that is, the benefits and drawbacks that it could accrue from lying or telling the truth),since citizens can now interact with their governments and with others in civil society in ways that they couldn’t before. An example of this trend has been the recent #SudanRevolts social movement on Twitter, in which Sudanese and global supporters have launched an unprecedented movement calling for an Arab Spring-like end to the rule of strongman Omar al-Bashir. Previously, in early 2011, other African leaders were confronted with small-scale conflicts organized via social media, including in Cameroon and Angola. Indeed, the massive uptick in cell phone users across the continent has led many to predict that the next long-term revolutions in African leadership will be launched via cell phone.

The flip side, of course, is that social media can be manipulated by the state, making less-democratic states like many of those found in Africa less susceptible to these costs. Examples proliferate: Cameroon has previously shut down mobile-Tweeting capabilities on its national network, fearing a revolt; Swaziland’s king has threatened to ban government dissent on Facebook and Twitter; and the Democratic Republic of Congo disabled SMS texting (including Twitter) for three weeks after its November 2011 election. Most oppressively, Skyping in Ethiopia can now result in a 15-year prison sentence.

3. Social media could lead to a greater degree of clarity or veracityin reporting about various dimensions of conflicts. Dissenting Tweeters in Uganda laid bare some of the problematic assertions in the viral Kony2012 video, and many members of the African Diaspora use social media to relay information about the domestic politics of their natal countries to the rest of the world: to that end, the Eritrean Diaspora has even created an online manual detailing how to Tweet the “positives” about the country in order to help mitigate its negative international image.

However, while Twitter could encourage transparency, it could also serve as atool of misinformation. Outside of Africa, a slew of re-Tweets in Iran in 2009 led to a proliferation of false information about elections there, and al-Bashir of Sudan has previously encouraged supporters to create their own Facebook pages to counteract protests against him. Further, the recirculation of similar stories amongst a certain cadre of global intellectual elites and policymakers about international conflicts could result in what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has referred to as “the danger of a single story.”

4.  Social media could serve as a tool togalvanize transnational peace and social justice advocacy groups, even bringing a swifter end to conflicts.  Particularly noteworthy in the African peace and social justice internet community is the vibrant online presence of award-winning Pambazuka News, as well as that of U.S.-based Pan-African advocacy organization, TransAfrica Forum. In addition, the role of social media was an essential part of “Save Darfur’s” intervention campaigns to stop the alleged genocide in Sudan.

Having said this, social media could just as easily serve as a tool to facilitate greater communication between groups inciting violence themselves. Twitter was recently blamed for stoking xenophobic sentiment in July when the Kenyan Twiteratti began writing about Somalian refugees as culpable for a host of Kenya’s domestic problems. More notably, however, transnational extremist groups based inAfrica, like Al Shabaab (Somalia), Boko Haram (Nigeria), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Mali, Mauritania, Niger) rely on Twitter and Facebook to gain new recruits. Al-Qaeda and Al Shabaab famously Tweeted their official (and underwhelming) merger in early 2012, and global risk analysts have also noted the prevalence of Somali pirates’ activity on Twitter. Al Shabaab’s launching of its own Twitter handle has also been used to burnish its credentials as the group has boasted of the identification badges of African Union peacekeepers that it had presumably killed.

Whether social media ultimately will prove itself to be a tool of greater pacification or belligerence in Africa and throughout the developing world is yet to be seen; that it will remain a powerful lever capable of conveying advantages to whichever side in a conflict wields it most strategically is beyond question.

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Topics: Africa • Internet • Terrorism

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