Did YOU vote for your President or Did Social Media Algorithm do it for you?
“Afrobarometer’s 2016 public survey showed that African citizens mistrust their electoral commissions and the quality of their elections,” what this statement does not say is that election observation missions have not evolved or adapted as quickly as political landscapes in Africa have in the past four decades. In the past five years there was widespread publication of the influence that data analytics company, Cambridge Analytica had on the 2016 US elections that had Donald Trump elected as President. In the months that followed, more leaks showed that they had been working in Africa for a couple of years already, with the most notable examples being how they worked for President Goodluck Jonathan to decampaign the then opposition presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari’s by using this private medical records among other things. They also worked extensively on the 2017 elections in Kenya that led to tribal violence. An undercover video of Cambridge Analytica’s executive, Mark Turnbull, showed him saying, “We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done huge amounts of research, analysis, messaging. Then we’d write all the speeches and stage the whole thing. So, just about every element of his campaign” (Solomon, 2018).
How safe are we?
These news raised concerns in Kenya and Nigeria on how democratic those elections were if people’s personal data was unknowingly used to target adverts to them that would unethically sway their opinions. It also highlighted how much the average person does not know about what their social media companies can legally do and not do with their data and started a lot of conversation around data privacy and protection laws especially on the continent.
Since then, Nigeria and Kenya have gone on to update their laws but still there is a gap in how standardised and effective these laws are across the Sub-Saharan region. An article by (Lovells, 2019) points out that out of the 54 countries in Africa, only 25 have passed data protection laws so far, with others having introduced data protection bills which are currently under discussion or waiting to be on the legislative agenda.
Concerns have arisen even with data of larger organisations with (Lovells, 2019) going on to mention how “some African organisations and countries have also expressed their intent to end the situation of ‘digital colonisation’ which they view as the consequence of having the most politically and strategically sensitive data, such as classified documents, hosted on non-African servers”.
However, the biggest threat that the Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted in Africa were questions on whether these gaps in data privacy and protection as well as how social media was used are a threat to democracy.
Statistics first reported by Reuters in 2016, showed that 120 million Africans used Facebook(which is the platform Cambridge Analytica used) regularly, 4.5 million of those Facebook users were based in Kenya, 15 million in Nigeria and 12 million in South Africa, in. Ordinary citizens use social media to talk about life in general, trending topics and when in election season they talk about elections too. It has in a way been a way for citizens to be able to hold their governments accountable to a certain extent with many governments and ministries having designated official social media handles that people can interact with.
Towards stronger democracies in the social media age
Social media has become an everyday part of our democracies and as such it would be only right that our governments and other authority figures in the way our democracies run recognise this. In response to this development, the Electoral Commission of South Africa, in partnership with UNDP South Africa hosted a conference from the 3rd to the 7th of March 2020 themed “Safeguarding Electoral Integrity in the Digital Age: Strategies for Combating Digital Disinformation”. This article talks about how the conference is bringing together experts in social media and elections from around Africa and the world to share experiences in harnessing the benefits and mitigating the risks of social media. This is because the South African IEC noted among other things that social media is how they managed to pick up on issues on the ground during municipal elections through tracking what ordinary citizens were posting.
These conversations happening show that social media if used properly can be a powerful tool that can make democracies stronger. The article further went on to talk about how the way elections are run in Africa, especially Election Observation Missions, can and should evolve to take into consideration how social media which has the highest risk of being used to influence elections unethically are used prior to and during election periods. This would mean missions are able to spot and hold political candidates to account on how ethical their campaigning methods are.
A slightly cynical opinion by (Lynch, Willis & Cheeseman, 2018) is that social media influence on elections is over exaggerated because political parties in Africa have always used disinformation and “dangerous” messaging to influence and scare voters. It mentions how in 2007 in Kenya, Raila Odinga’s opposition appeared to be on the brink of winning power, his rivals used flyers that were circulated with his head placed on Idi Amin’s body send a message to voters. It also mentions how the political climate and how elections are really won in Africa which is mostly through ethnicity, patronage and credibility of candidates means that social media is not that big a threat. Since disinformation campaigns were there before social media instead of just criminalising things would it not be more useful for our leaders to look at the root cause of these actions and seek solutions for the for better democratic elections on the continent?
Data privacy and protection laws are quickly gaining ground in Africa which shows that these are legitimate concerns and our governments are doing something about them. However, how quickly is our electoral landscape adapting to the new factors that determine how election campaigns are run, who consults in these elections and which authority bodies hold them accountable? Until then, Africans will not really know whether they voted for their presidents or members of parliament because of data manipulation or out of genuine choice and belief that they are the best candidates which is really the cornerstone of democracy.
Do you know how safe you are? Read up on how much your country’s laws protect you from the likes of Cambridge Analytica and if unsatisfied, push your elected officials to do more to protect you by finally passing data privacy and protection laws they have been sitting on for years.
- (2016). Retrieved from http://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Policy%20papers/ab_r6_policypaperno35_electoral_management_in_africa1.pdf
- Branch, D., & Cheeseman, N. (2008). Democratization, sequencing, and state failure in Africa: Lessons from Kenya. African Affairs, 108(430), 1-26. doi: 10.1093/afraf/adn065
- Cape Town hosting indaba on impact of social media. (2020). Retrieved 5 March 2020, from https://www.iol.co.za/capetimes/news/cape-town-hosting-indaba-on-impact-of-social-media-43998315
- Facebook rakes in users in Nigeria and Kenya, eyes rest of Africa. (2015). Retrieved 5 March 2020, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-facebook-africa-idUSKCN0RA17L20150910
- Lovells, H. (2019). Overview of data protection laws in Africa | Lexology. Retrieved 5 March 2020, from https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=82196d1c-2faa-43c2-983b-be3b0f1747f2
- Lynch, G., Willis, J., & Cheeseman, N. (2018). How big was the role Cambridge Analytica played in Africa? – CNBC Africa. Retrieved 5 March 2020, from https://www.cnbcafrica.com/news/political/2018/03/26/big-role-cambridge-analytica-played-africa/
- Solomon, S. (2018). Cambridge Analytica Played Roles in Multiple African Elections. Retrieved 4 March 2020, from https://www.voanews.com/africa/cambridge-analytica-played-roles-multiple-african-elections