Social media, elections, and democracy in West Africa
Smyth, Thomas Nathan
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Today is an exciting time to be a political activist in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly for the technically inclined. New media technologies including the mobile phone, the Internet, and social media are proliferating rapidly and their potential as potent political tools is being realized. While 2012's Arab Spring in North Africa captivated the world, similar campaigns have been occurring south of the Sahara both before and since. But the embrace of social media for political ends raises the question of how, if at all, these new media actually perturb the political landscape. These questions have been well-studied in Western contexts, but remain virtually unexplored in developing regions where traditional media are scarcer, democracies are younger, and the effect of social media on politics has the potential to be quite distinct. This dissertation explores these questions by focusing on social media use during elections in Nigeria and Liberia in 2011. It asks how social media impacted the democratic process during these key events, and compares social media discourse to formal election monitoring operations. The findings suggest that given sufficient civil-society coordination, social media can be an effective tool for electoral scrutiny. Furthermore, for this and other reasons, it appears that social media has the potential to emerge as a key influence on public faith in electoral processes. Based on these results, it is further argued that social media's true disruptive power in developing world contexts lies in its ability to transcend the economics of scarcity that have dominated traditional media in such contexts. This observation is offered as an extension to the networked public sphere theory of Yochai Benkler that frames this work.