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The Role of Social Media in Africa’s Democratic Transitions: Lessons from Burundi

Social media draws on diverse modalities of text, images, audio and video. It expands the genre of communication by introducing blogs, message boards, podcasts, wikis and vlogs (Boyd & Narain, 2012). In 2010, Africa took a leading position globally in using social media platforms to interact (Essoungou, 2010). Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are currently the leading platforms of choice in Africa (Parke, 2016) with Twitter being the preferred method for the continent’s political conversations (Mungai, 2016).

Social media campaigns are credited for the Arab-Spring in 2010–2012 that led to the collapse of some of Africa’s dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia (Wolfsfeld et al., 2013). This led to a heightened degree of consciousness with some of the “most spectacular demonstrations of popular activism of courage and determination” (Chomsky, 2011).

The potential of Africa’s social media as a democratic pluralistic organ majorly contends with media regulation and liberal market imbalance that could backtrack epic gains. In exemplar spearheaded by South Africa’s social media users, there has been an ongoing campaign dubbed #Datamustfall; a public outcry against the exorbitant data costs related to accessing the internet (TMG Digital, 2016).

Present monetary costing for social media can succinctly be viewed as a structural exclusionary measure for online contribution, interaction and knowledge consumption. This directly affects the continent’s 80% of social media subscribers using mobile phones, 70% of which is a critical mass aged 30 and below who are the largest population on the continent. It becomes a gripping paradox to realize that while 65% (Westbrook, 2015) of this population contributes directly into the capital gains of mobile internet technology, 50% of these subscribers are unemployed (Amare, 2014), yet wanting to niche an online political presence.

The automation of the internet brings close to the human palm and eye democratic concerns that include but not limited to; people’s rights and fundamental freedoms, deteriorating economic conditions, high unemployment rates among the youth, increased corruption and, violent treatment of citizens at the hands of state security agents. Access to, and use of, social media has circumvented the established, often government-controlled mainstream media channels. Most mainstream media are historically challenged by its tendency, either by will or coercion, to bend towards appeasing rulers. It often carries pro-government narratives at the expense of the masses, who for decades were largely ignorant and misinformed “leading to manufactured consent” (Street, 2010, p. 36). This is a situation that has significantly changed due to the culture of transparency (Bertot et al., 2010) that comes with new media (Nolle, 2016).

In Burundi, the government has consistently accused the media outlets for aligning with the opposition and playing a role in the failed coup of May 2015 (Hoes, 2016). The State’s response has been to shut down nearly all private radio stations, hide critical information from key media outlets, and harass journalists. The latter have been forced into exile, with others dying in unclear circumstances (Vircoulon, 2016). However, the social media netizen (habitual users of the internet) has largely defied attempts by government to keep the citizens and the international community in the dark on various atrocities committed by the state against its people (Taremwa, 2016).

Social media in Burundi not only filled the communication void but also became an essential tool for exchanges of information on daily life and self-protection for Burundians (Vircoulon, 2016). It is in this light that the chapter encapsulates a body of work seeking to explore the topic in three major interconnected lenses: terrain of democratic transitions on the continent; social media as understood within theoretical frame of agonism and mistrust and; finally, a precise accent on Burundi’s political pluralism as shaped by online campaigns on Twitter and Facebook through memes and hashtags.

Authored by Anne Munene and Ibrahim Magara, the full article is published in chapter seven of the book titled: Democracy 2.0. Media, Political Literacy and Critical Engagement which can be accessed through this link: https://brill.com/view/title/38284?format=PBK

The Role of Social Media in Africa’s Democratic Transitions: Lessons from Burundi The Role of Social Media in Africa’s Democratic Transitions: Lessons from Burundi Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on May 25, 2018 Rating: 5


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