Over the past decade or so, social and digital media have proven to be key factors in democratic processes across the world. Examples range from the 2016 U.S. presidential election, where numerous actors manipulated Facebook’s advertising platform and user profile data, to elections in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Kenya. While the scale and impact of digital technology deployed in these examples may vary, Yuval Noah Hariri has warned that digital dictatorships could become omnipresent if too much data becomes concentrated in too few hands.
Research to date has largely focused on how social media are utilized to spread fake news, disinformation campaigns and propaganda in a bid to influence perceptions. In 2017, we analyzed the social media landscape around Kenya’s general elections and the work focused heavily on social media influencers. They are often hired to ‘make noise’ and rally Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) behind a cause.
Our research found that political bloggers hired by the two main political parties, The Jubilee Party and The National Super Alliance, often did not have as much influence as perceived because they messaged within echo chambers. We also found that about 85 per cent of social media conversations took place in and around around Kenya’s capital even though Nairobi County represented only ten per cent of Kenya’s voting population. Lastly, political bloggers generally did not reach undecided voters and they seemed more concerned about rallying existing voting blocks.
Although it is impossible to systematically analyze conversations on WhatsApp or other instant messaging apps, the Bloggers Association of Kenya estimated that over 20 million Kenyans use the instant messaging service. This figure is probably double the number of Kenyan social media users who, as we noted earlier, are heavily concentrated in Nairobi and other urban centers.
When looking at the continent, WhatsApp is undoubtedly the most popular instant messaging app in English-speaking countries across African. The growing influence of WhatsApp became apparent during the March 2018 elections in Sierra Leone. The app was used to spread disinformation about the deployment of UN peacekeepers to the country and other fake news. These rumors also circulated offline and eventually a senior security official felt compelled to hold a press conference to deny the allegations in public.
With WhatsApp boasting around 1.5 billion users globally and Facebook Messenger adding another 1.3 billion users, the power of instant messaging apps instantly becomes clear. Apart from having a massive user base, messaging apps do not allow third party intervention thus making it impossible to limit the spread of disinformation. This can have detrimental effects particularly during elections. Conversely, social messaging apps can be leveraged positively to reach a wide audience of undecided voters. This requires an innovative use of machine learning in order to monitor message resonance, conversation themes, sentiment, network structures, and other relevant metrics.