The Social Media Game-Changer
Harare – The explosion of social media in countries across the African continent is fast transforming the way people seek, receive and share information; presenting unlimited opportunities for Africa and her citizenry to use these tools to share their views on development issues.
New trends are emerging and communication seems to be changing at a very fast rate, enabling real time interaction between citizens and duty bearers.
More so, development campaigners, politicians, activists and academics in Africa appear to be fast embracing these new tools.
For example, most mainstream media institutions have established a presence on social media, using such platforms as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Talk and LinkedIn among others to share and gather content.
The good news about these social media platforms is that all participants are proncumers i.e. they produce and consume information at the same time.
Sadly, not all people in the African continent are benefiting from social media networks.
Vusumuzi Sifile, the regional programme manager for communication and knowledge management at Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) in Lusaka, Zambia believes that marginalised groups in Africa are not enjoying the benefits of social media and their platforms.
“While the sudden increase of social media appears a step in the right direction, it is still a long leap for the marginalised groups to be able to use these new platforms to effectively set the agenda for development dialogue,” notes Sifile.
Gabrielle Ramaiah, a PhD student in Government at Harvard University in the United States, and Jason Warner, who is doing the same programme at the same institution, concur.
“Internet connectivity, let alone social media, still does not exist in some of the most underdeveloped places in Africa and throughout the Global South,” they indicate.
Ramaiah and Warner add that: “Although Africa has shown itself to be the fastest growing global market for internet connectivity; internet penetration rates remain low enough not to be a development game changer within and across countries in the African continent.”
Consequently, it is critical for African governments to look at ways that can help marginalised societies embrace social media as a development tool.
For this, PSAf’s Sifile believes that one way of helping marginalised societies is through current awareness programmes. The aim should be to attract the currently disadvantaged groups to take part.
He says, “The key to realising value from social media as a development tool is in creating, moderating and maintaining platforms for discussion, attracting the currently marginalised to participate and bringing their views to the attention of people with influence.”
Unfortunately, in most – if not all – African countries, the gap between the poor and the elite remains astoundingly wide. As such, citizens in the remotest parts of the continent need support to be part of the online communities where information is generated and shared.
For Africans to fully benefit from social media platforms, there is need to clear misconceptions from some sections of society. For instance, there are misconceptions in some sections of African society that social media are meant for youngsters interested in expanding their social lives.
“Different stakeholders need to come together, as a matter of urgency, to clear the various stumbling blocks restricting the use of new media among the majority of the poor,” Sifile explains.
A key step is to reduce consumer costs and this can be achieved by improving ICT infrastructure, in particular the fibre optics network or using tax breaks to increase access to cheaper hardware and software.
More so, to improve the use of social media as a development tool, policies that improve access to ICTs should be crafted.
Political leaders should also play a leading role in using social media platforms based on their ability to create wealth and improve education, agriculture, and health services.
“Governments and telecommunications stakeholders like mobile phone companies and internet service providers in the African continent should take the lead to connect all parts of their respective countries through the national fibre link and related platforms,” Sifile says.
There is also a great need for African governments to develop and adopt a more organised and effective ICT strategy based on consultation with partners, including local stakeholders and the private sector. Public-private partnerships should have a key role in building infrastructure and coordinating network installations to reach areas that remain underserved.
With this emergence of social media networking, one who is digitally literacy now has a major voice online. This means that there is need for focused interventions to promote literacy in the remote parts of the African continent to help more citizens use some of the basic new media tools, otherwise poor and marginalised citizens may remain disadvantaged.
Furthermore, widespread awareness campaigns should be rolled out to improve ICT literacy, especially important in reducing the ‘digital divide’ between urban and rural communities.