‘Digital Democracy’ delivers a powerful read on politics and social media in Africa

Welcome to the sixth annual TMC African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular. Please read along with us this summer!

A book that opens “It began with a rumour” will give me high expectations. That sentence opens this week’s installment in the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular, Nanjala Nyabola’s “Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya.” And readers, the book exceeded my expectations.

We originally selected Nyabola’s book for this summer’s series because we knew it would offer insights on how digital developments are shaping politics in contemporary Kenya. But “Digital Democracy” delivers more than that. Nyabola’s execution and writing are clear and sharp. This well-researched work marshals illustrative stories of social media in Kenya, making it an easy, quick read.

"Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics" by Nanjala Nyabola. (ZedBooks, 2018)
«Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics» by Nanjala Nyabola. (ZedBooks, 2018)

Of course, Nyabola writes about the disruption that social media and the digital age more broadly have brought to Kenyan politics. But along the way, the book also teaches readers about Kenya’s political history, its technological landscape and evolution, its media freedoms, and such contemporary social issues as domestic violence. Nyabola rightfully expects, for example, that by learning about the violence that engulfed Kenya’s 2008-2009 elections, readers will better understand the digital decade that emerged afterward. Likewise, non-Kenyan readers need Nyabola’s explanation of Kenya’s advanced mobile money system to better understand the swift success of crowdfunding campaigns brought on behalf of Kenyans needing medical care.

Nyabola’s book is a necessary addition to the growing but still small body of work on social media in Africa and what it means for politics. Social media in Kenya in particular deserves closer study, especially by political analysts, including political scientists. As Nyabola writes:

For Kenyans, social media is not simply a space to post pictures of new clothes or delicious food, or to have conversations about sports. It is a space where some of the most exuberant and insightful political conversations are happening.

Nyabola shows how social media offers citizens an avenue through which to engage their governments in new and effective ways. Especially when traditional media offers government-sanitized news, social media — including Twitter — make it possible for citizens to challenge government narratives and react to unfolding events in real time.

“Digital Democracy” shows the democratic power of Twitter in harnessing resources and confronting government in real time. For example, Kenyans used Twitter to coordinate emergency services during the Westgate terrorist attack in Nairobi in 2013. In 2015, social media users challenged the government narrative about the delayed response to the attack on Garissa University, blaming government corruption as one culprit. Nyabola shares the story of a viral Instagram photo of the helicopter that should have been available to police responding to the Garissa attack that was instead flying a police official’s daughter to a resort city.

But who exactly are these Kenyans using social media? Nyabola admits that they are a special group. The majority of Kenyans online are from the capital city Nairobi. Kenya’s Twitter community is “overwhelmingly urban, educated and highly localized” and “the capital city dominates Kenya’s Twitter presence.”

And yet “Digital Democracy” shows us that Twitter has been a meaningful force for significant offline activity beyond the capital, on behalf of people who are not middle class. For example, in chapter 7, Nyabola details three high-profile cases of gender-based violence in remote areas far from the capital. Social media spread news of the cases and connected the victims to resources. As she writes, “without social media [the cases] would arguably have disappeared into the abyss of a hamstrung judicial system that struggles to deliver justice for victims.”

Nyabola’s arguments and insights put “Digital Democracy” in conversation with Zeynep Tufekci’s “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.”

Nyabola reveals connections to netizen movements elsewhere in Africa, including Zimbabwean Pastor Evans Mawarire’s protest against his government using Facebook. She shows how governments have been responding to netizen movements, including Uganda’s shut down of Facebook and WhatsApp in 2016 ahead of an election.

“Digital Democracy” highlights important policy and legislative developments meant to curtail the powers available to citizens in a digital democracy. Nyabola writes, for instance, that Kenya’s 2018 Cybercrimes Act has been used largely “to threaten bloggers and netizens who are seen as too critical of the [Kenyan] state.” While Nyabola sees social media as a channel through which Kenyans can seek more from and even challenge their governments, digital spaces also allow “the state to reach deeper into the private lives of citizens.”

Across the Atlantic, Americans will find Nyabola’s book useful in comparing how publics engage traditional and social media. And for those thinking about digital forces that undermine U.S. politics — from Cambridge Analytica to fake news — “Digital Democracy” offers a balanced take on the potential and pitfalls of social media in the contemporary political moment.

Kim Yi Dionne, one of The Monkey Cage’s senior editors, is an assistant professor in political science at UC Riverside. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

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