Africa: New Media Technologies and Citizen Participation in the Public Sphere 0

New media technologies have, for a long time, been considered as communication tools par excellence because they are believed to enhance citizen participation in the public sphere. These technologies of freedom are also beloved because of their interactivity and the independence they grant citizens across the world. Because of this, many communication scholars have posited that new media technologies will radically change the African continent in terms of citizen participation in the public sphere. However, Africa has always proven to be a different continent, especially regarding these trans formative technologies. The following article by our Contributing Editor Dr. Joachim Arrey sheds more light on the role these technologies can play to transform political participation in African countries. He also highlights how these challenges are actually militating against the democratization of these technologies. 

The emergence of new media technologies in the twentieth Century has not only raised enthusiasm about citizen political participation in the public sphere in the digital era, it has also given the voiceless a chance to express their views and hold their leaders accountable. The enthusiasm is based on the popularity of new media technologies and the fact that they enjoy relative autonomy from state and commercial control and influence. New media technologies are not only considered as extremely effective means to record, store and distribute information, they are believed to allow for asynchronous as well as synchronous two-way information flow while at the same time being independent of spatial constraints. They are exceptional tools when it comes to helping individuals and groups promote their causes to public officials and interested members of the public.

The use of new media technologies for participatory communication in the public sphere is viewed as a significant path to the advancement of deliberative and participatory democracy across Africa. As pointed out by communications scholars such as Wasserman, Nyamnjoh and Hurwitz, research on new media technologies has underscored the relationship between new media technologies and greater citizen participation in the democratic process in both Western and non-Western cultures and these new technologies are serving as engines that are galvanizing public interest and participation in modern democracies such as those on the African continent. Currently, across the continent, many people view the Internet, in particular, as the new communication tool par excellence and the venue for political groups of all stripes to propagate their political messages and win sympathy and new members to their political agenda. Compared with the Platonic ideal of individual citizen action and participation, new media technologies constitute new phenomena that are facilitating mass communication in technologically-equipped societies. Unlike old media, new media technologies are facilitating new forms of two-way communication and political participation, encouraging interaction among citizens and public officials and providing a rich forum for the discussion of contentious political issues.

In recent years, these tools of freedom are being employed by advocacy and interest groups to organize their supporters for online lobbying of local, national and foreign officials. Youtube, Twitter and Facebook are making it a lot easier for citizens to share their perspectives and expose crimes committed by dictatorial or democratic governments that engage in undemocratic and abusive practices. These new technologies have been instrumental in significant political changes in Africa. Across the continent, social media have reduced the cost and complexity of organizing mass numbers of individuals into a single, cohesive, political force and they have, in the process, redefined social activism, attracting and enabling the young and the old to make common cause where necessary and such actions have resulted in the downfall of brutal dictators such as Gadhafi of Libya, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia. What is more interesting is that new media continue to evolve, creating new opportunities for political expression that becomes increasingly difficult for others to suppress like the recent demonstration in Egypt following the military’s overthrow of Egypt’s democratically elected President, Mohammed Morsi. Thanks to new media technologies, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are redefining the way political participation in the public sphere is occurring. Given its growing membership, Facebook is now the third largest country on earth and it is now among the electronic platforms of choice for many political organizations and people across the world, including Africa, for them to share their political views and participate in their countries’ political activities.

These technologies are all the more appealing due to their interactivity, universality and the freedom they provide to citizens to choose the information that meets their needs. They are popular means of communication because they are free from control by political authorities and market forces. This implies that with new media, the gate-keeping role of journalists in traditional media has been diminished.

However, at the heart of this debate is the issue of access. If citizens must participate in the political and democratic process, they must have access to information which plays a key role in how citizens participate in the political process and how they make judgments about the performance of their political leaders. The extent to which new forms of democratic participation in Africa can be developed using new media technologies will also depend on how these new communications technologies are regulated. It will also depend on who has access. Despite their relative autonomy, more than two decades after their introduction, there are questions about access, inequality, power and quality of information. Though online communities are emerging across Africa, they are mostly among the elite. Discussions about new media have often disregarded the unusual African terrain which defies many of the technological innovations said to be re-configuring the structures and processes of communications globally. This includes poor telecommunication networks in most parts of Africa, resulting in low levels of Internet usage. While new media technologies have a role to play in enhancing citizen participation in the public sphere, their potential and effectiveness in Africa must be viewed in light of the continent’s economic, political and cultural realities.

For new media technologies to actually enable African citizens to participate in their countries’ political and democratic processes, these citizens must have unfettered access to these tools of modern communication which have resulted in greater citizen political participation in other parts of the world. In Africa, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, there is a huge gap between those who have access to new media technologies and those who don’t have. Many people in rural parts of the continent are not technology savvy and do not have the resources and requisite telecommunications infrastructure that can enable them be part of the new information age. This therefore calls into question the notion that new media technologies can radically enhance citizen participation in the public sphere in Africa. With media censorship in the era of new media a reality on the continent, citizen participation in the public sphere is unlikely to increase.

The new media environment is still the bastion of society’s more privileged members, and has done little to encourage participation among the traditionally unengaged. Even as the Internet user base increases and becomes more ordinary on the continent, it still is not available to millions of citizens who do not have the resources and skills to participate in the new feast of ideas. In some ways, the Internet has widened the political information and participation gap between societal ‘haves and ‘have-nots’ on the continent and this is gradually eroding the initial hope and excitement about the Internet being a public sphere of unmediated discourse.

NB This article was first published on May 2014