Global media has become increasingly digitalised in recent years. These processes have had a detrimental impact on the traditional business models of commercial journalism, as audiences have moved online and advertising markets have consequently collapsed.
Online audiences generally expect free content; attempts to erect paywalls have not been as successful an alternative as many had hoped. The digitalisation of media has therefore created a crisis for traditional media and its management models.
The digitalisation of media also presents new opportunities to think about the relationship between technology and society. The potential of these technologies to reshape the way citizens – especially the youth – participate in political debates has been met with careful optimism. Especially in African societies, as with other developing contexts in the global south, these technologies have sometimes been welcomed for their potential to ‘leapfrog’ traditional media.
While traditional media like television and radio still have the largest footprint in African societies, digital media have started to provide users with ways of becoming more directly involved in politics and of contributing to social change. Of particular interest for scholars of media and society has been the way African users have adopted and appropriated digital media technologies in creative ways. Examining the way the digitalisation of the media in Africa has taken place can provide us with a useful lens through which to view recurring questions such as the tension between new media structures and user agency.
Structural limitations and user agency
One of the recurring research areas in the study of digital media in the global south is the relationship between political economic questions such as unequal access to new media technologies: the so-called digital divide. Another key focus is the ways in which digital media are appropriated, adopted, and adjusted to fit local circumstance: the question of user agency. Scholarly work on digital media in Africa and the global south has largely focused on the former.
Although the obstacles highlighted by digital divide scholarship are important to note, especially when they prompt us to reconsider overly celebratory narratives of the liberating power of digital media, the latter question of user agency is arguably more important when assessing the impact of digital media on societies in the south.
However, the two aspects are linked; a good understanding of structural limitations to the widespread adoption of digital media in developing societies can direct attention to the many creative ways in which such adoption does take place, and, moreover, how those technologies are adapted to suit local contingencies. In other words, an understanding of the political economy of digital media in African and other developing societies can prompt us to more carefully examine how users display agency when interacting with digital media.
A focus on the way that digital media are adopted and appropriated will confirm Mabewazara’s (2015, p.1) view that vibrant digital cultures and practices in Africa are emerging despite infrastructural, political, and economic obstacles. Digital media provide African users opportunities to connect with a globalised media landscape, but these connections take place by means of a domestication and localisation of those digital technologies.
Digital media have therefore afforded African audiences the opportunity to move beyond the largely passive audience experiences of legacy media to being the active users of digital media, often in combination with older forms of media (Willems and Mano, 2017). Attention to how technologies are put to use and impact people’s lived experience in Africa, therefore, requires a departure from the more technologically deterministic models of ‘impact’ so favoured by media-for-development discourses and donor agencies (Chib, 2015).
Optimistic predictions for what digital media might mean for social change and democratic politics in Africa have, in the past, frequently been based on these technologically determinist assumptions. It is often supposed that merely introducing new digital technologies into developing contexts in African societies will automatically bring about social change and deepen democratic participation. These assumptions are usually linked to older modernisation paradigms of ‘development’: the idea that the media can facilitate a universal, linear trajectory of progress, and that new digital media technologies can merely assist in skipping or ‘leapfrogging’ some of these steps. The ultimate outcome of this teleology would then be the attainment of transparency, good governance, and economic growth.
In contrast, approaches that focus on agency, creativity, and human capabilities in putting digital media to use can provide us with a much richer and more textured picture. This focus on the agency of digital media users can provide us with an insight into how digital media technologies can assist people in enriching their lives and developing their capabilities.
Digital media and political participation
In many countries in the global south, social inequalities run so deep that many marginalised citizens find it difficult to engage effectively with state institutions in a way that affects policy-making. In these contexts, digital media – especially when accessed via mobile phones – can provide new channels for citizens to engage with politics on various levels. This does not merely include the passive receipt of political information, but also active participation in social activism. Sometimes this activism takes the form of political behaviour that seems ‘irrational’ at first glance. However, expressions of outrage, or even the sharing of gossip or jokes, can contribute to a deepening of political culture at the level of everyday lived experience.
Mobile phones as platforms for digital entrepreneurship
The greater ease with which information is disseminated over digital platforms – especially when facilitated by mobile phones – has had significant economic benefits for African societies. Whether this is in the form of farmers connecting to large international markets via the internet, small entrepreneurs running businesses from day to day using mobile phones, or individuals benefitting from remittances sent by relatives in the diaspora, both formal and informal economies are created and sustained in ways that have not been possible before.
Not only have digital media and mobile phones created pathways for African entrepreneurs and consumers to access local and global networks with greater ease and speed, but the technological sector that supports digital media – from mobile phones to laptops and internet connections – has come to require a digital entrepreneurship that benefits from the creativity of African citizens.
What is especially interesting is the way in which African users have found ways to adapt and appropriate digital and mobile media, for example, developing codes to communicate via mobile phone without using airtime – so-called ‘flashing’ or ‘beeping’ (calling and hanging up before the receiver can answer so as to avoid incurring a call cost). While this creativity can be celebrated as an ingenious way for African users to adapt digital and mobile media to their own circumstances, it also points to the often exorbitant costs of airtime and data which are obstacles to the use of new media technologies in African countries. Airtime comes at such a high cost in South Africa, for example, that it is often offered as a prize in consumer competitions, or airtime vouchers are given as gifts or freebies.
WhatsApp has become immensely popular for mobile phone users in South Africa because it transmits data at a much cheaper rate than SMS text messages sent via mobile phone data networks. In 2016, there were reportedly around 10 million WhatsApp users in South Africa, leading the mobile networks Vodacom and MTN to call for stronger regulation of OTT services (Van Zyl, 2016). Mobile phones have indeed become an integral part of social life in most African countries, where besides economic capital, mobile phones also provide social capital. Southwood (2008, p. xvi) refers to mobile phones as being the “sports car” of its age in Africa, an aspirational status symbol within affordable reach.
This place of mobile phones within in African media users’ everyday social realities provides access to digitalised media and a global information society which requires us to think about the role of digital media in Africa beyond formal economic indicators. One of the areas in which the extent of digital media’s impact on African social and political life has become evident is the interaction between social media and traditional media.
The political dimensions of social media
In view of the diversity of applications of digital media in Africa, especially those facilitated through mobile phones, we have to consider the impact on the whole range of human experience – economic, political, and social. The way digital media – from email, blogs, and websites to digital music, messaging platforms, and social media – give expression to everyday culture is as important as the connections provided to more formal channels of communication, political deliberation, and activism. In all of these interactions, social media in African societies is increasingly important as a space where the personal and the political meet. Especially in contexts like Zimbabwe where mainstream media use is largely under state control, social media platforms like Facebook can provide alternative spaces for political information, discussion, satire, and activism (Mare, 2016).
While the digitalisation of media has created severe challenges for traditional media business models, it has also created many opportunities for African publics to engage more directly with mainstream media and to create their own media to challenge dominant mainstream media narratives.
The symbiotic relationship between digital media and traditional media can be seen in South Africa, where citizen bloggers have contributed to a more participatory journalism culture. One example of how user-generated content on digital platforms can impact mainstream news agendas – and eventually even made global news headlines – was the case of Mozambican immigrant Mido Macia, a victim of police brutality.
Macia was handcuffed to and dragged behind a South African Police Services vehicle and later died of his injuries. The incident was initially recorded on a mobile phone by a bystander and then sent to the tabloid newspaper (a print media outlet that has been very successful, see Wasserman, 2010), the Daily Sun, which posted it on their YouTube channel and website and reported it in print. The video went viral on social media and news sites around the world. This story is an example of how newspapers can cater for local audiences in their traditional, print form while using social media to connect local politics with broader global audiences and interests. The result is an amplification of a local story for global resonance.
South African politics increasingly sees its agenda shaped or influenced by social media. Some of the first allegations of ‘state capture’ – undue influence by the Gupta family on former President Jacob Zuma – were made by a former member of parliament via Facebook, rather than a formal press release (Tandwa, 2016). These allegations, followed by others, eventually led to the downfall of Zuma in February 2018.
Posts on Facebook and Twitter have also led to major controversies over racism and identity politics, following racist posts made by prominent people. One politician who has often landed in hot water over insensitive, ahistorical, and crude remarks on Twitter has been the premier of the Western Cape province and former leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance party, Helen Zille. Other opposition party members, like Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, have also used Twitter to great effect, building up strong followings. The new President, Cyril Ramaphosa, is active on Twitter, and his predecessor’s controversial tenure led to the creation of several parody accounts – an indication of how humour on social media fulfils an important political function. Zuma, like his counterpart Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, has been the subject of countless satirising memes, gifs, remixes, photo-shopped pictures, and YouTube videos.
African youth are more active users of digital media than previous generations, who grew up as more passive consumers of traditional media. Arguably the most important example of social media as the medium of choice for African youth is the South African student movement, which began in 2015 and changed the country’s higher education landscape over the subsequent two years.
Significantly, the movement itself has become known by a Twitter hashtag: #FeesmustFall. Student protests, which caused university campuses countrywide to shut down for weeks at a time on several occasions over the last three years, have used social media very effectively to mobilise their followers and disseminate information about their cause.
Often adopting an online vocabulary taken from the US activist movement, #BlackLivesMatter, and imitating their semiotics of protest, social media proved a vital part of students’ arsenal of resistance. Not only did mainstream media struggle to keep up with events as they unfolded on the campuses and streets of the country’s major cities, major news sites often resorted to merely copying posts from student activists’ Twitter feeds. Students have also extensively used other social media platforms such as Facebook Live and Periscope to broadcast live feeds of their protests and subsequent political deliberations like negotiations with university management.
South African students managed to exploit social media and the evolving digitalisation of the news media to their advantage, demonstrating its relevance in the globalised contemporary democratic public sphere.
The hashtag #FeesMustFall became such an independent entity that it was included as a respondent in a court interdict by the University of Cape Town (UCT) against protesting students. The hashtag followed an earlier hashtag, #RhodesMustFall, used by UCT students demanding the removal of a statue on campus of colonialist Cecil John Rhodes. The movement was about more than the statue’s removal, as protesters also demanded reform of university curricula and that university faculty represent the demographics of the country better. Subsequent protest movements drew on the same nomenclature. For example, the nationwide #ZumaMustFall protest marches during 2017, demanding the resignation of the former president because of corruption, used a similar slogan, as did protests later that year against the high cost of internet data, entitled #DataMustFall.
What these examples show is that as far as the participation of young people in politics and social activism is concerned, South Africa has seen the rise of ‘hashtag politics’. Social media has emerged as a major news source in South Africa, even if the analysis and agenda setting for political decision-making following the protests still tended to occur predominantly in legacy media like newspapers, radio, and television.
Similar engagement with politics via social media can be seen in Zimbabwe (Mare, 2016), although the more repressive media environment in that country has prompted young people to make more use of satire and ‘hidden transcripts’ online (for example, fictional characters on Facebook) in order to contribute to political commentary.
Another important development to note with regards to the digital media sphere and politics in South Africa has been the rise in prominence and popularity of several news analysis and comment websites. Among these are the Daily Vox, which articulates a young, critical, and activist voice, the Con, established by journalists who used to work at the independent weekly newspaper Mail and Guardian and the Daily Maverick, which has emerged as one of the major comment and analysis sites in the country. The Cape Town-based online publication GroundUp also provides critical, alternative perspectives on events including student politics, using journalists and correspondents with good connections to communities in Cape Town and the Western Cape province.
While acknowledging the important role that digital media, particularly social media platforms, play in activist politics in South Africa, we should be careful to avoid the technologically determinist trap of suggesting that digital media caused the protests or determined their outcome. These were some of the mistakes made in the initial, overly optimistic responses to the Arab Spring.
Instead, we should focus our attention on the ways in which digital media are located within African societies and remain limited by various social and economic restraints, in order to observe which pre-existing social forces are being amplified by social media. Besides social and economic restraints, we can also note political restraints, such as the recurring shutdowns of the Internet by African governments in response to citizen protests. In recent years, these have included disrupted internet services before elections in Uganda, anti-government protests in Ethiopia, an internet blackout in Cameroon, and the shutting down of the Internet after protests against the president of Togo (Dahir, 2017).
Like in other contexts around the world, where the ‘dark side’ of the Internet includes Islamist radicalisation, hate messages pertaining to refugees, fake news, nationalist mobilisation and support for terrorism, as well as racist and misogynist messages (Pohjonen & Udupa, 2017, p.1173), there have also been downsides to the Internet in Africa. Several examples of ‘extreme speech’ in Africa can be noted (Pohjonen & Udupa, 2017).
Tensions related to Africa’s history of ethnic and racial polarisation and conflict are often amplified in online contexts. In South Africa, there have been several recent cases of such online vitriol, where the case of Penny Sparrow’s racist comments – comparing black people to monkeys; this was found to constitute crimen injuria by a South African court (Stolley 2016) – has become emblematic of the negative potential of the Internet and social media to foment racial hatred. Social media have also been used by internet trolls, supported by the British PR company Bell Pottinger, to prey on racial tensions in South Africa in order to deflect criticism from former President Jacob Zuma (Wasserman, 2017).
What has become abundantly clear, however, despite some of these analytical caveats, is that digital media is rapidly reshaping political and social life in Africa, and is doing so in ways that amplify and shift existing social, cultural, economic, and political patterns. It is not enough to study digital media in Africa in terms of a lack of a deficit. African users are adopting, adapting, and reshaping digital media technologies to suit their circumstances and gratify their informational needs in creative ways.
Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town, South Africa
This expert comment draws from Herman Wasserman’s new book Media, Geopolitics, and Power: A View from the Global South (University of Illinois Press, 2018).
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