Monday, May 19, 2014

Democracy on a Cellphone: Social Media's Role in the SA Elections

How technology, social media and the internet intersect with democracy during voting season in South Africa.
 by Charles Siboto 

Social media have an interesting way of seeping into all the spheres of our lives and changing the way we think, live and share ideas. Many people are concerned about how social media are resulting, ironically, in people being less social. Speaking of irony, it’s amusing to see a video highlighting this plight going viral on YouTube. As much as social media can be a problem they are also wonderful tools for improving the way we interact. Sure, people are spending more time taking selfies and posting pictures of their supper but they are also sharing great ideas.  People also share their hopes and fears online and other people provide advice and sometimes even comfort. People are connecting on social media and it’s both for the better and for the worse.

Voting is not exempt from the social media treatment. This year’s national election was my second one as a voting citizen and it’s been a fascinating experience seeing the massive online activity surrounding the event. I barely remember what happened in the last election because it was not covered as much as this one on all the online spaces that we frequent. It seems that politics were much simpler then or they were just as difficult as they are now and we experienced our confusion, fear, insecurities and hopes in smaller pockets. What really stood out for me during this election is how much information people shared on social media regarding their views concerning South Africa’s political state.

Voting season revealed a lot about the South African psyche. Engaging with and observing people on social media I realise that as South Africans we have a lot of fear. We are scared of where we are headed as a country. A lot of the fear that you hear voiced, as it were, is from the middle class, especially the white middle class but also from the ever increasing black middle class. This is, of course, because the middle class is connected to the Internet and proactively voice those fears on the social media they are on. The people who suffer the most in SA don’t have this voice though because they are too poor to have an online presence.

For the first time it seemed people were genuinely confused as to who to vote for! In the end Zuma’s ANC dominated the polls but many people are unhappy with the ruling party and they weren’t afraid to say so on social media platforms. Running up to the elections the posts on my Twitter and Facebook feed were mostly just about how people are tired of the ANC and how they would rather vote for the DA, EFF or Agang. People were bickering, calling each other stupid and racial comments were thrown around. Things were difficult leading up to the election. I didn’t make up my mind about who I was voting for till the morning I was standing in the relatively short queue at my voting station.

Difficult is good though and the fact that the Internet allows so many people to share their thoughts creates this wonderful digital community of people who care about the future of the country and this is great. We are talking, and talking is a start. There’s also the flipside of the coin where we don’t want to just get stuck talking. Social media have a tendency to provide a platform on which to complain and feel like you are making a difference when you really aren’t. Running up to the elections I received a lot of emails with petitions that wanted me to sign so as to STOP Zuma! I won’t say this is an outright waste of time but how much does it really do? Anytime you can get a large group of people to get together to do something it’s powerful but at we also have to be realistic about how much signing an online petition can do. Posting selfies and liking statuses on Facebook and Twitter is all good and well when it comes to creating awareness about issues, but how do we move forward from there?

Speaking of selfies, how cool (and later slightly annoying) were all the thumb selfies (thumbies, no?) doing the rounds? People took the beautiful act of casting a hard won democratic vote and had fun with it. I spent a lot of time going through friends’ social media profiles and laughing at all the cool thumbies and that made me realise whatever else South Africans are, we are pretty resilient as a nation. We bicker and we fight but when we do something spontaneous like thumbies together we do it well and it’s a sign that we are perfectly capable of building a great nation.

It was cool to see how people are sitting in front of their PCs or glued to their smartphones looking at the election results as they were being updated every few hours. It’s almost like people getting excited about a sporting event. The Internet has changed the way in which we cast our vote and the way in which we discuss politics. Social media have also changed the way in which politicians reach the public.  This is all good and well but it’s also rather depressing how many South Africans don’t have access to all this technology and as a result remain voiceless. This is one of the things that we need to see changed in our country. Basic service delivery should be done right and affordable internet structures should be a part of that delivery.