This article is a follow up to a previous article on ‘The Influence of Technology on Governance in Africa‘ in which we observed how technology is shaping how governments operate, how citizens expect their governments to operate, and the interaction between government and citizenry. We summarized the impact of technology on the ‘citizen’ (people) side of the citizen-government relation in three simple terms: Influence, Expression & Connection. This article looks at technology specifically being used within election situations.

The use of information technology  and particularly social and mobile technologies during elections has become prevalent across Africa. Technology has been used to monitor elections, solicit feedback from citizens on issues pertinent to their nation at times of elections and even provide capability to manage crises that occur following election results disputes. Ghana, which is considered Africa’s model democracy only very recently conducted its elections and technology played a key role.

The landmark in the use of technology at election periods (pre-election, election, and post-election) is the 2007 Kenyan elections that ended in violence after the results were disputed. This marked the birth of what has become an often-quoted innovation success which has grown to be used around the world (reverse innovation), Ushahidi. Watching in despair on television from abroad the worsening situation in the country as violence rocked different parts of Kenya, a handful of bloggers decided to do something about it. They created a simple alternative to mainstream media that crowdsourced crisis information from ordinary citizens using simple text messaging.

Ushahidi has been used multiple other times during elections, moving from covering just the post-election scenario to the entire span of events from pre to post-election.

Since that landmark use of technology in an election scenario in Africa, the use of technology in different parts of Africa to cover elections has grown and become more and more sophisticated. A very recent example of this is the efforts of Al Jazeera to solicit sentiments from Ghana’s citizenry during the recently concluded elections. According to Al Jazeera:

Al Jazeera has partnered with the Web Foundation to launch a mobile voice programme to coincide with the Ghana elections. Airtel Ghana has provided a toll-free number for their subscribers (local charges apply for other networks) and Kirusa is hosting the service. Ghanaians, including citizen reporters from Penplusbytes ETV GhanaGhana Decides,the Institute of Media Practice and CODEO have been calling the service to submit their audio reports.

(You can listen to some of the audio reports here)

Basically, users were invited to make a phone call, where they listen to news headlines and leave a message recording their own views, experiences and even submit citizen journalist reports.

Other than the Al Jazeera effort, technology and social media in particular has been used extensively during the entire course of the Ghanaian elections. The Ghana Decides initiative has launched multiple campaigns online and on social media:  #iRegisteredGhana Decides TagSpeakGhana, Our Vote Our Voice and even an online votekast (online publishing of results as they are reported)

Back in Kenya, the country is now facing the first elections after the tragic outcome of the 2007 elections. It is more likely than not that the Ushahidi team will be keen on applying the technology that was born during the previous elections to the up-coming elections. Their technology has been ‘battle tested’ and consequently refined from deployment in many scenarios, not just elections – from the BP oil spill to  earthquakes and other natural disasters. They’ve also expanded their portfolio to other technologies such as the Swift River initiative which enables scanning, filtering and verifying real time data from sources such as Twitter and SMS – and with the growth in use of social media in Kenya (and Africa) in general, information flowing in social media channels will be as critical this time round as SMS was in 2007.

Social Media is actually a real game changer during elections in Africa particularly given the viral nature of information on social media channels and how hard it can be to monitor such information flows. The case is especially so for Africa given the fact that it is only in recent or upcoming elections that the full extent of the impact of the internet via social media is being felt. Social media across Africa has grown significantly in recent times. This impact has become pronounced for two key reasons:

  1. Accessibility: These channels are being made accessible and usable from non-traditional interfaces (i.e. web browsers). Twitter and Facebook can be accessed from basic (dumb) phones via mobile browsers and even SMS
  2. Cost: The cost of using social media has drastically reduced to near zero or zero cost. With Facebook Zero, users can make use of Facebook without paying the data fee. In any case the cost of data of sending a tweet is negligible compared to sending an SMS.

In Kenya, there have been concerns over social media being used to propagate hate speech. While government can track SMS conversations via the telecommunications companies, social media presents a real conundrum for governments given the fact that this is information flowing over the open internet. Furthermore, where SMS is concerned, it is more likely that the message will be sent within the country and there’s a cost challenge to a propagator as far as broadcasting an SMS country wide or outside the country. A tweet on the other hand is posted and is at once out there for literally the whole world to see instantanously. It is no wonder some governments would like to exert more control over the internet.

On the other hand, politicians are not being left behind but are getting on social media and engaging the electorate on social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook. If you’re in Kenya, it is not uncommon to see candidates’ Facebook page / website advertisements on Facebook. And campaigns are creating room and budget for social media activity (See the report by Kenya Tweets on the use of Twitter by one of the presidential candidates). Even the government electoral body in Kenya is actively using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to reach the electorate.

In conclusion, we can fit the impact of technology on elections within the three broad terms we’ve previously identified:

Influence: Social Media in particular creates avenues for information to be dispersed during elections that can influence peoples actions. This can be factual information, fictional or purely propaganda. Verification is critical, as people could base actions on false information received via social media channels which many have come to rely on for information. Politicians are passing their message on to voters using technology

Expression: As we’ve seen with the Al Jazeera efforts in Ghana, technology can give people a means to express their views and concerns openly and give them a platform that they would otherwise not have had to make their voice heard.

Connection: In the case of Ushahidi, the platform enabled people in need of emergency assistance to connect with emergency relief providers. On the other hand, politicians are reaching out and connecting with citizens on social media.

Are you reading this from Ghana? share your experience with the use of technology in the recently concluded elections. Are you reading this from Kenya? What are your observations on the role that technology and social media will play in the upcoming elections?

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