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Social Media and Elections in Africa  

Iginio Gagliardone

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.

Article

Agenda Setting in Political Decision Making  

Jonathan Klüser and Marco Radojevic

Research on policy agendas and agenda-setting has developed into an important subdiscipline of comparative politics, which seeks to understand how political actors allocate scarce attention. The theoretical origins of the field describe agenda-setting as a “conflict of conflicts,” that is the political struggle over the question of which issues receive attention. Modern scholars have expanded on these ideas and turned them into important theoretical models of the agenda-setting process. The most influential of these models are Kingdon’s multiple streams approach and Baumgartner and Jones’ punctuated equilibrium theory. The former analyses the emergence of issues in the separate streams of policies, politics, and problems, whose coupling is necessary for any issue in order to be considered for political decision-making. In contrast, the latter stresses the importance of negative and positive feedback mechanisms in order to explain long periods of incremental policy change and sudden radical changes, which characterize the policy process. Inspired by the second approach is the Comparative Agendas Project, which is a comprehensive and comparative data collection effort about policy agendas using a unified taxonomy. These data enable scholars to research the entire political process from media inputs via government throughput to legislative output. Studying governmental agendas, it is paramount to stress that—against common wisdom—political ideology does not play a decisive role in the agenda-setting process. Rather, both leftist and rightist governments seek to portray themselves as potent problem-solvers and respond to problematic societal condition in order to prove their competence. Looking at the media as one potentially powerful political agenda-setter, it turns out that newspapers and television channels’ power to steer the political agenda hinges on a variety of conditions. Generally, media outlets are most successful in setting the agenda if they report on issues that otherwise would not have been brought to the public’s attention. But even then, the media’s role appears to be restricted to narrowing down the issue menu from which politicians can choose when setting their agenda. The study of political agendas is by no means limited to these areas, as shown by the hundreds of articles that have been published in major political science journals over the past decades. While the agenda approach has not yet developed into a theory of politics, it has certainly become a major subdiscipline of comparative politics, which has helped make sense of the political world.

Article

Communication Technology and African Politics  

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.