Talking politics: Young South Africans and political participation in mobile and social media
I was part of this very enjoyable panel at IAMCR2012 on on 17 July in Durban, South Africa
Chair: Milagros Rivera
Respondent: Herman Wasserman
Over the past decade, Southern Africa has witnessed rapid growth in access to mobile communication and, more recently, the expansion of mobile internet has introduced a prolific variety of affordable messaging genres. Young people in Southern Africa have claimed mobile messaging as a space for everyday gossip, flirtation, friendship, youth culture and media-sharing. Like other young people around the world, the early adopters of mobile internet in these countries increasingly use their mobile phones to browse news shared by their friends, deciding whether to pass on news-related links and occasionally sharing cartoons, videos and visual mashups with political themes. Search, social media aggregators and mobile instant messaging and chat platforms are new political players, with roles as both gate-openers and gate-keepers to content, participation and mobilisation. As local print media circulation falls, mobile and online channels are important sources of political news, functioning often as a back-channel to young people’s use of mass media, as a form of viewer and listener participation in broadcast programmes or social media pages of stations and programmes. Political parties and organisations have responded to the accessibility of mass mobile audiences with a range of mobile-centred campaigns, although official attempts to engage interaction via mobile phones have met with uneven success.
While a range of activist projects involve the use of SMS, users of basic phones remain limited by the costs of SMS, those who can afford slightly more expensive feature phone handsets have rushed headlong to adopt messaging platforms such as MXit, Facebook, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter. Further up the commodity scale, the more complex functionality and greater affordability of smartphone messaging applications and the Blackberry internet service provides access to higher volumes of visual and audio media along with better privacy.
In the context of this massive expansion of access and functionality, young people in Southern Africa are growing up in some of the most unequal societies in the world, and are confronted by a wide range of political and social challenges. Our panel will refer specifically to examples of young people’s political and civic engagement in the inter-generational dynamics of the clashes between the ANC Youth League and the party in South Africa, Zambia’s 2011 elections and the failed April 12 Uprising in Swaziland. All the presentations will consider the strengths and weaknesses of various methodologies for understanding young people’s use of mobile media, and their participation in social media sites.
From the street to Facebook: mobile publics, urban sociability and civic engagement during Zambia’s 2011 elections
Department of Media Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
Mobile phones have either been conceptualised as technologies of freedom crucial in the mobilisation of demonstrations and protests globally or as ‘middle class fads’. The role of new media (and social media in particular) in political change has of course become even more hotly contested in recent protests part of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, which led to debates on whether or not the revolution was/would be tweeted. However, what has marked recent debates is the tendency to analytically separate virtual and physical spaces. The political implications of mobile phones have insufficiently been contextualised within the broader configuration of offline spaces. Furthermore, as Judith Butler (2011) has recently argued, we often consider public spaces as spaces that are already public, hereby ignoring the processes in which these spaces are claimed and constituted as public.
Butler’s call for a deeper understanding of the politics of the street is particularly pertinent in the context of Zambia’s recent general elections. The relatively smooth change of power from the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) to the opposition Patriotic Front (PF) represented a crucial moment in Africa’s political history, and was accompanied by mass celebrations in the street which evoked the atmosphere of a low-level revolution. However, the celebrations (which were largely ignored in global media) following the announcement of the results were preceded by a tense atmosphere in which Zambians were urged to stay put at home and not move. The call not to move turned the street into a space of unsociability, an abnormal situation given the crucial role of public talk in Zambia also known as ‘radio trottoir’, the everyday discussion of political affairs on pavements, in public transport and beer halls. Moreover, the limitations on physical mobility coincided with a court injunction on private media which were accused of publishing “speculative stories” on the election results.
The information black-out led particularly middle-class Zambians to resort to their internet-enabled mobile phones for updates on the elections on social media. The Facebook page of the private television station Muvi TV in particular came to constitute an important, lively public space where Zambians actively discussed the elections. Within seconds, updates on the page elicited hundreds of responses. Muvi TV’s page is largely unmoderated and highly interactive which syncs with the station’s broader aim of providing a voice to Zambia’s working class as opposed to the heavy focus on hard news and political elites on the state-controlled Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation.
Drawing on an analysis of Muvi TV’s Facebook page coupled with participant observation and interviews in an up-market shopping mall and an informal market in Lusaka, this paper examines the fluid movement between online and offline spaces in the context of Zambia’s hotly contested elections. Echoing Sheller’s (2004) understanding of publics as fluid, momentary spaces and Butler’s (2011) work on the politics of the street, I argue that a more location-aware understanding of mobile phone use in civic engagement enables us to gain a better grasp of the shifting nature of urban sociability between virtual and physical spaces.
Prepaid social media and the mobile internet in Southern Africa: Patterns in young people’s mobile discourse
Marion Walton and Pierinne Leukes
Young South Africans are growing up in one of the most unequal societies in the world, and are confronted by a wide range of political and social challenges. Poor service provision is a simmering cause of discontent around the country. Youth unemployment has soared by 20% since the economic crisis of 2008, exacerbating discontent about the lacklustre performance of the schooling system. In January 2012, young people caused fatalities by literally storming the gates of a university in a stampede to claim the few available places. Racial discourses have gained increased traction as South Africa’s post-democracy ideals of equality and opportunity prove stubbornly difficult to attain.
Mass appropriation of mobile messaging by young people in South Africa has placed texting and (more recently) many-to-many communication via the internet within the reach of many young people. This paper will tackle ongoing issues of differentiated access to and use of mobile communication, and particularly of access to the mobile internet. These differences have important implications for the mediatisation of talk in general and political talk in particular, given the role of aggregation and visual communication in new interfaces to political discourse.
We review some recent qualitative studies of youth mobile participation in South Africa, highlighting the specific local patterns of adoption and participation, in particular the influence of differential commodification of mobile communication, the tiered functionality of phones and local preferences for Bluetooth over more costly forms of online media sharing. We contextualise these case studies with public data from Facebook and Twitter to show distinctive patterns of participation in social media. We consider case studies of the failed April 12 uprising in Swaziland and the discourses of inter-generational confrontation activated in the clashes in South Africa between the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress and the organisation’s Youth League. These reveal the dynamics of attention ecologies in mainstream media and online media aggregation in relation to the varied affordances of social networks and instant messaging or chat interfaces.
While access has expanded in comparison to other contexts, production, editing and distribution of user-generated content remains limited in this context by the high cost/bit for data. Young people who have easy access to desktop computers, cheaper forms of broadband and media production software remain at a distinct advantage.
Perceptions about Mobilising the Youth for Political Purposes through Mobile Technology: A South African study
Social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook have become platforms for the mobilisation of social and political forces, allowing the previously disenfranchised to voice their concerns and aspirations. In South Africa, there is renewed and increased interest in the opportunities that new media offers citizens to engage with and challenge existing political leadership. This paper explores the potential that mobile technology offers youth to participate in the political process, and to what extent the youth would actually use it for this purpose. Findings are based on a survey conducted in May 2011 with 200 university students registered in second year Communication Studies at the University of Johannesburg, and a subsequent focus group discussion with postgraduates on those findings, and their own perceptions and experiences. While the results may not be generalised to the greater South African population, it does provide an insight into perceptions and uses of this technology for political purposes among young voters. Interviews have also been held with the two major political parties, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA), to discuss their mobile phone strategy and the methods they have used to target the youth to encourage more engaged voter behaviour. In this way, the research is an interesting combination of authorial intent and audience reception via a vis the use of political text messages in an emerging democracy.
Facebook and youth political participation in South Africa
Online social networking sites, Facebook in particular, are growing in popularity in South Africa. With the increasing affordability of mobile handsets, users are able to access the mobile internet and connect via mobile social networking applications. The proposed paper explores how Facebook is used by South African youth, with particular reference to their political participation and involvement. Research has shown the declining involvement of young people in political processes, particularly since democratic elections in 1994. This is an international trend, with a general global rise of political apathy and decreased news consumption among youth. However, Facebook and other new media applications widely used by young people have been seen as a potential vehicle to re-engage youth in political debate. The potential usefuless of such applications for creating networked publics and mobilizing political action was highlighted recently during the Arab Spring; and conversely, Facebook and Twitter have been used (e.g. in the United States) to target potential youth voters. The notion of e-democracy has raised the potential of the internet to enhance political action and activism.Through a qualitative content analysis of Facebook pages, together with interviews and focus groups with South African youth, this paper explores the links between Facebook and political participation.
Exploring the Relationship between South African Youth, News Media and Online Political Participation
Musa Ndlovu and Chilombo Mbenga
Political knowledge and participation have steadily declined in recent years, particularly among youth. In popular and academic discussions of youth culture, youth are regularly presented as politically ignorant, cynical, and apathetic. Various public institutions view this abandonment of politics by young people as a threat to the survival of the public sphere and democratic process. This paper challenges conventional conceptions of political ‘knowledge’ and ‘participation’ by also exploring South African youths’ use of social media for political participation and knowledge. The article then draws from relevant popular and academic literature to identify some of the causes of young people’s declining levels of political participation and to examine youths’ relationship with mainstream politics. The article also examines the relationship between politics and young people’s cultural spaces in the context of global capitalism.