The analysis of the diffusion of social media in Africa and its relevance for politics has been caught in a paradox. On the one hand, social media have been saluted for their newness and for their ability, especially in connection with increasingly accessible portable tools such as mobile phones, to offer a level playing field for individuals to participate in politics and speak to power. On the other hand, this very enthusiasm has evoked relatively tired tropes used to frame the advent of other “new” technologies in the past, stressing what they could do to Africa, rather than exploring what they are doing in Africa. Early research on the relationship between social media and elections in Africa has tended to adopt normative frameworks adapted from the analysis of electoral contests in the Global North, presupposing unfettered citizens using social media to root for their leaders or demand accountability. A more recent wave of empirically grounded studies has embraced a greater conceptual and methodological pluralism, offering more space to analyze the contradictions in how social media are used and abused: how humor can be turned into a powerful tool to contest a type of power that appears overwhelming; or how armies of professional users have exploited people’s credulity of new media as “freer” from power to actually support partisan agenda. Interestingly, this latter approach has brought to light phenomena that have only recently caught global attention, such as the role of “fake news” and misinformation in electoral contests, but have played a determinant role in African politics for at least a decade.
Yannis Theocharis and Joost de Moor
Creative participation refers to citizens’ invention of, and engagement in, new action forms that aim to influence, or take responsibility for, the common good in society. By definition, these action forms are constantly evolving and cannot be listed or summarized. Yet some, like guerrilla gardening, have over time become more established in political repertoires, and specific arenas are known to be particularly productive sites for their development. These include in particular the Internet, and lifestyles and consumption. The constant changes in how citizens become active represented by creative participation present considerable challenges for scholars of political participation—both in terms of theory and methodology. In particular, such forms test our ability to distinguish political from nonpolitical activities. However, how political creative participation is, is often subtle and implicit, and therefore hard to establish. Yet being able to do so is essential for an ongoing assessment of the quality of participatory democracy. With conventional forms of participation declining and creative participation becoming more common, scholars must be able to agree on definitions and operationalizations that allow for the comparison of participatory trends. For instance, a key concern has been whether creative forms of participation crowd out more conventional ones, like voting or lobbying politicians. Developments in survey research have been able to show that this is not the case and that creative participation may in fact increase conventional participation. In addition, qualitative research methods like focus groups and ethnography, allow for more open-ended explorations of this elusive research topic. As to who participates, creative participation has enabled traditionally underrepresented groups like women and young people to catch up with, and sometimes overtake, those older men who have long dominated conventional political participation. Still, education remains a key obstacle even to creative participation. The COVID-19 crisis that took hold of the world in 2020 has compromised access to collective action and public space. It has thereby once more put the onus on citizens to engage creatively with ways to influence, and take responsibility for, society. At the same time, the crisis presents a need and opportunity for political participation scholarship to engage more deeply with theoretical debates about what it means to be political or to participate.
Sharath Srinivasan and Stephanie Diepeveen
From global amplifications of local protests on social media to disinformation campaigns and transformative state surveillance capabilities, digital communications are changing the ways in which politics works in Africa and how and with whom power accrues. Yet while digital information technology and media are relatively new, the role of communication in state power and resistance on the continent is not. The “digital revolution” provokes us to better account for this past to understand a rapidly changing present. From language and script, to print and broadcast, to mobile applications and digital databases, how information is circulated, processed, and stored is central to political power on the African continent. The story of political change in Africa cannot be told without attention to how power manifests with and through changes in the technologies that enable these communication practices. A communication technology perspective on the study of politics in Africa provides a more sober analysis of how power relations circumscribe the possibilities of political change than more normative approaches would. Even so, a communication approach allows for social and ideational factors to mix with material ones in explaining the possibilities of such change. Communication technologies have been central to what political actors in Africa from the precolonial past to the early 21st century can and cannot do, and to how political change comes about. Explorations across time, political era, and technological development in Africa allow us to unpack this relationship. In the precolonial period, across forms of centralized and decentralized political organization, oral communication modalities reflected and enabled fluid and radial logics of authority and power relations. Changes in moral and practical ideas for political organization occurred amid early encounters with traders and Islamic scholars and texts and the movement of people to, from, and within the continent. Colonialism, which heavily focused on narrow extractive aims, required alien central authorities to overcome the vulnerability of their rule through knowledge production and information control. Equally, the same communication technologies valued by colonial authority—intermediaries, print, radio—became means through which resistance ideas circulated and movements were mobilized. In independent Africa, political aims may have changed, but communication infrastructures and their vulnerabilities were inherited. The predicament facing postcolonial governments had a communications dimension. Later, their ability to forge rule through control and allegiance had to contend with a globalizing information economy and demands for media pluralism. A communications perspective on the history of power on the African continent therefore guides a fuller understanding of change and continuity in politics in a digital age by drawing attention to the means and meanings by which legitimacy, authority, and belonging have continued to be produced and negotiated. Transnational configurations of information flows, global political economy logics of accumulation and security, and communicative terrains for contesting authority and mobilizing alternatives have been shown to possess both distinctly new characteristics and enduring logics.
Marta Cantijoch and Rachel Gibson
The study of e-participation is a young and growing discipline in which controversies are vibrant. One of these is the lack of a widely accepted definition of “e-participation.” Online political activities that involve little effort from the participant, such as liking or sharing political content on social media, are particularly divisive. Some scholars are reluctant to label expressive forms of online behavior as political participation. Others argue in favor of an adaptation of previous definitions to accommodate recent technological changes. Levels of engagement in different types of e-participation are increasing steadily over time. While differences between democracies are often stark, the upward trend has been consistent, especially since the emergence and expansion of social media. Whether this means that previously unengaged individuals are now taking part is one of the central questions of the literature on e-participation. To date, research has shown positive but modest results in support for a mobilizing effect. Particularly promising are findings suggesting that online tools are attracting younger participants to the political arena. Online forms of political engagement are often placed in a more general process leading to online and offline political participation. “Lean-forward” models that provide a contextualized understanding of the drivers and effects of e-participation are particularly insightful. In order to provide robustness to some of the questions that remain unresolved, scholars exploring e-participation should consider expanding their methodological repertoires. The trend is toward mixed designs that combine surveys and other forms of data (big data collected from social media or qualitative data).
Mass media play an important but often misunderstood role in wartime. Political elites try to marshal support for military intervention (or justify avoiding such involvement) through the press. Media sometimes serve as watchdogs, holding leaders accountable for their claims and actions in times of conflict, but more often appear to act as uncritical megaphones for bellicose rhetoric. The public, meanwhile, has little choice but to see war through the prism of media coverage, placing a great burden on the press to cover conflicts truthfully and thoroughly, a responsibility they sometimes live up to, but in important ways do not. Scholarship about these issues goes back decades, yet many questions remain unanswered or up for debate. There seems to be strong consensus that media coverage of conflict is even more elite driven than is domestic coverage, for instance, yet how much that matters in shaping public attitudes and support for war remains contested. Similarly, research consistently shows that the press shies away from showing casualties, yet the effects of exposure to casualty information and images are still not well understood. Finally, digital media seem to be important factors in contemporary crises and conflicts, but scholars are still trying to understand whether these platforms more serve the interests of protest or repression, peace or violence, community or polarization.
David Bawden and Lyn Robinson
For almost as long as there has been recorded information, there has been a perception that humanity has been overloaded by it. Concerns about “too much to read” have been expressed for many centuries, and made more urgent since the arrival of ubiquitous digital information in the late 20th century. The historical perspective is a necessary corrective to the often, and wrongly, held view that it is associated solely with the modern digital information environment and with social media in particular. However, as society fully experiences Floridi’s Fourth Revolution, and moves into hyper-history (with society dependent on, and defined by, information and communication technologies) and the infosphere (an information environment distinguished by a seamless blend of online and offline information activity), individuals and societies are dependent on and formed by information in an unprecedented way, and information overload needs to be taken more seriously than ever. Overload has been claimed to be both the major issue of our time and a complete nonissue. It has, as will be noted later, been noted as an important factor in many areas, including politics and governance. It has been cited as an important factor in a wide range of areas, from business to literature. The information overload phenomenon has been known by many different names, including: information overabundance, infobesity, infoglut, data smog, information pollution, information fatigue, social media fatigue, social media overload, information anxiety, library anxiety, infostress, infoxication, reading overload, communication overload, cognitive overload, information violence, and information assault. There is no single generally accepted definition, but it can best be understood as the situation that arises when there is so much relevant and potentially useful information available that it becomes a hindrance rather than a help. Its essential nature has not changed with evolving technology, although its causes and proposed solutions have changed significantly. The best ways of avoiding overload, individually and socially, appear to lie in a variety of coping strategies, such as filtering, withdrawing, queuing, and “satisficing.” Better design of information systems, effective personal information management, and the promotion of digital and media literacies also have a part to play. Overload may perhaps best be overcome by seeking a mindful balance in consuming information and in finding understanding.