Local politicians across much of Sub-Saharan Africa now use Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram.

Research story: Battling Misinformation on Social Media in Ghana

Social media has rapidly become the primary means of political communication across much of Sub-Saharan Africa. Local politicians use Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram in in three distinct ways: to coordinate campaign activities; to mobilize voters; and to spread campaign messages and counter the messages of competitors. At a local level, “platform campaigners”, “social media foot-soldiers”, “info warriors” and other intermediaries tailor campaign propaganda to hundreds of additional groups and individuals. On the one hand, social media platforms provide a significant opportunity to local actors with limited resources to enter the political arena so they can be incredibly empowering.

On the other hand, however, social media can also facilitate the widespread distribution of misinformation and manipulated content, including incitement to organised violence. This is particularly prevalent in environments with historically poor communications, limited access to additional sources of information, and low digital literacy. What effects does the advent of social media have for electoral politics in Africa? Does it weaken or strengthen political parties? Does it increase polarization and exacerbate ethnic divisions? How can circulating misinformation be minimised and its effects neutralised?     

A new research project lead by Dr. Elena Gadjanova at the University of Exeter (Department of Politics), and involving researchers at the University of Warwick, the University of Bayreuth in Germany, and several project partners in Ghana, seeks to answer these questions. Researchers working on the project have been gathering and analysing micro-level data on the use and mis-use of social media in election campaigns in Northern Ghana since January 2019. So far, they have conducted over sixty interviews and focus group discussions with a wide range of local actors – from elected politicians and campaign operatives, to party members, youth groups, traditional and religious leaders, and media personalities. A public opinion survey, intended to probe social media attitudes and what makes citizens more or less susceptible to misinformation, is also currently ongoing.  

The project speaks to broader questions about how social media is transforming political communication in the Global South: whether it contributes to a more fragmented political discourse, whether the enhanced opportunities for micro-targeting are leading to an increased personalization of politics, and the extent to which social media groups are conducive to the survival of diverse political opinions in plural societies. The project has much potential to be scaled up into a larger research programme, extended to other African countries, and to provide opportunities for PhD students and post-doctoral researchers to work in an area, which is rapidly becoming central to politics and governance throughout the world.     

 

Date: 22 November 2019