Youth participation and social media in SA

Here’s my talk from the keynote for the Digital Youth & Learning conference.

Walton, Marion. 2013. Invisibility 2.0? Zamdela protests, young people’s participation and social media.  Digital Youth & Learning Unconference, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya, May 15-17.


I’m here to talk to you today about the rise of social media in South Africa – it is exciting to see a potential space where young people’s voices can be heard, one which can help to place youth issues on the national agenda. But today I’m going to ask you to look beyond the stories that we like to tell about the successes of social media, stories of Arab and other Springs, Occupy and so on, and see what we’re really dealing with when we rely on these forms of media in our local organisations and networks.

Francis Nyamnjoh has explained beautifully why social media is so exciting to us in Africa – its sociality builds on local traditions of informal communication, or ‘pavement radio’. Building on this idea, Herman Wasserman pointed out how SMS and other mobile communication works to help ordinary people obtain information, share it and create possibilities – especially where mainstream media and free expression are out of reach.

So we tend to see social media as having powerful potential for citizen media and participation. That’s the promise that ‘citizen’ journalism and social media could be opening new opportunities for democratic citizenship.

Who gets heard?

And yet, when we look at who actually gets heard on social media platforms, unfortunately the picture is not so democratic. We know that, on online platforms, our attention is governed by what we call ‘power laws’. Economically these power laws tend to mean that the rich just get richer. On platforms like Twitter, where there are an infinite number of voices, and where people have a limited amount of time, power laws and the way information flows through the network means that, while new voices can rise to prominence relatively quickly, a small number of people tend to get more and more attention.

In a nutshell, this means that the large majority of people are still very unlikely to be heard, while others are ‘trending’, celebs who get huge boosts of attention and access to the microphone.

SA’s Massive rebellion of the poor

Let’s move our focus to young people in South Africa, which has been called the country with the highest number of community protests in the world. These protests mostly challenge the state’s non-delivery of basic services such as electricity, water and housing. My students created a map visualising the ‘service delivery’ protests that police data recorded between 2009 and 2012. In that time apparently the police dealt with 2.9 ‘unrest incidents’ each day.

So we may ask, given these incredibly frequent community protests, how are people expressing their discontent? Researchers like Professor Jane Duncan and my student Nicole Wilcox have shown that we definitely can’t really rely on traditional media to tell the stories of the protests. Mainstream media are particularly bad at reporting the perspectives of the protesters. Given these gaps in coverage, you may be wondering whether social media is helping to convey the protestors’ stories to a broader audience? You may well ask – let’s look at a case study of a protest that happened in my own home town of Sasolburg in January 2013.

Zamdela’s burning

Let’s visit Sasolburg – an industrial town in the rural Free State province. Sasolburg was literally built by and for a group of wealthy chemical industries situated in the area. Despite this wealth, in the township of Zamdela, the average income is now R400 per month.

In January, 2013, Sasolburg residents embarked on a protest against some extremely unpopular decisions involving a proposed merger of their local municipality and a deeply indebted neighbouring municipality. Government turned a deaf ear to the protest, and things turned really ugly. Television screens were full of burning cars and people looting. In the course of the protests, police killed four people. 

Sadly in a country where people’s rights are routinely just ignored protesters may have found that spectacular violence is a way to get attention really fast. As community leader Nkanyiso Xaba explained:

[The protestors] have marched, they handed over a memorandum and no one is willing to come back and answer to their memorandum. So the resolution that we are taking is that the community will continue burning tyres to demonstrating their anger until somebody listens.

Analysing social media

Nonetheless, to understand how these events played out on social media, we need to look at two very different but equally important questions

  1. The first is, when the protests are reported, who speaks?
  2. And the second is, when we learn about the protests via social media, who actually gets heard? 


So let’s first look at the question, who speaks? I took a random stratified sample of tweets from the time of the Zamdela protests. The tweets were captured using the Twitter REST API.

Tweets were downloaded on 23 January 2013 using NodeXL ‘s Twitter search network importer, resulting in a sample of 1599 tweets posted from 899 distinct Twitter accounts. (NodeXL used Twitter’s ‘garden hose’ search API – v 1.1.). Graph metrics for the search network were calculated based on retweets and mentions in the network.

Of these tweets, 571 (or 36%) included a link to an image. These tweets formed the basis of the content analysis.

I divided the dataset of tweets with linked images (n=571) into two strata according to how influential the tweets were in the larger search network. Accounts with the highest in-degree metric (>=2 retweets or mentions) were selected for separate analysis.

This identified the most influential accounts for content analysis of the images considered highly sharable, newsworthy or important in this network

The less influential tweets constituted the majority of the tweets (66%). These had not been retweeted and their author had not received mentions in the search network (i.e. in-degree <2). A smaller set of 192 tweets with linked images (34%) were more influential (in-degree >=2). These tweets had been retweeted, or the author had received mentions in the network.

Most tweets received fewer than two retweets or mentions
Most tweets received fewer than two retweets or mentions

I drew a stratified random sample from these groups for the content analysis. After duplicates were removed, the final dataset for the content analysis consisted of 27 images from more influential tweets and 18 images from less influential tweets.

Despite the potential for citizen media to tell the story from the protestors’ perspective, mainstream media appears to have played a dominant role in defining which images we saw on Twitter. The 27 highly retweeted tweets in the random sample together constituted 34% of the edges in the Twitter search graph. Thus this was pretty much a media ‘echo chamber’, which highlighted spectacular and highly “newsworthy” images of violence, arson and particularly of looting and its aftermath.

Sources of influential images posted to Twitter
Sources of influential images posted to Twitter

Citizen media (mostly from the white right wing) accounted for only about 11% of the images. Print news publications posted the majority of the images that were circulating (51%), perhaps because of their strong networks of photojournalists and links with freelance photographers. Broadcast media posted only 27% of the images, perhaps because their large team of journalists covering the story spent a good deal of time under siege in the Zamdela police station, but possibly also because they were not posting still images for their audience to share.

Geocoded tweets show limited mobility of journalists
Geocoded tweets show limited mobility of journalists
SABC journalist tweeting while trapped in besieged Zamdela police station
SABC journalist tweeting while trapped in besieged Zamdela police station

Finally, online-only news (particularly the Daily Maverick) was relatively well represented with 11% of the images.

Visualisation of most influential images of Zamdela protests
Visualisation of most influential images of Zamdela protests

I’m sure you’re wondering why the Zamdela protesters weren’t telling their own stories on Twitter in the same way as we have seen activists from Occupy or Ferguson do. In the first place, social media demographics are different in South Africa, and they were even more different in 2013. At the time of these protests Twitter, much beloved by South African journalists, had been adopted by the wealthier middle class, not by people earning only a couple of hundred rand per month.

In the second place, at the time, most South Africans used feature phones, not smart phones. Although they could access Facebook and Twitter, many still preferred cheaper instant messaging. Consequently, lots of grassroots participation was likely taking place on Whatsapp and other messaging platforms such as Mxit.


A search network gathered via the Facebook API revealed that Zamdela activists as well as local witnesses of the protests and their aftermath were posting their experiences to Facebook rather than Twitter. This citizen journalism primarily took the form of Facebook status updates posted to personal Facebook pages.

As seen in other contexts, this mode of citizen engagement is highly emotive and dominated by strong expressions of affect. The sample included several attempts to mobilise support for the protests and retaliate for the police killings:

n wat i sow was really sad fire arms were every where tear gas acid water n our fellow strikers were killed tdy im worried cos i left my kid behind hes only 6 years old guys fuck ace n fuck the police who killed our friends guys let sasolburg turn to marikana now

The Facebook sample also included commentary by observers, who were not directly involved in the protests, critical commentary on media coverage, rationales for the protest action and debate among community members, both pro and anti mobilisation.

The sample even included (informal) posts by police officers, who posted Facebook comments of desperation and revenge, apparently while in medias res:

“our hands are full”

“the back up can’t get threw”

“this is now personal”

It is notable that this wide variety of posts and commentary did not include a single image of the protests taken by a participant or a local observer from the community.

There are several possible reasons for why this analysis was unable to identity the visual “voice” of Zamdela activists or the broader community. Posting images on public platforms such as Twitter may have been too risky for protestors. Taking and posting images is relatively difficult on feature phones. Images also require quite a bit of mobile data, which is expensive in South Africa, particularly for cash-strapped consumers who tend to buy prepaid airtime in small denominations. Even zero-rated mobile services (such as Facebook Zero) do not zero-rate images.

Despite the possible problems with posting images, even the text of the Facebook posts would have provided very interesting perspectives and contacts for journalists reporting on the events. Sadly journalists’ were not paying attention to Facebook. In 2013, ‘pavement internet’ and grassroots citizen participation were still pretty invisible to mainstream media.

Being heard

It’s time to go back to Twitter and look at our second question, who gets heard on Twitter? It’s pretty hard to tell exactly what people are paying attention to on social media. Still, in our sample we can see what sources were retweeted and mentioned in the tweets. Judging from this evidence, during the Zamdela protests, the mainstream media, particularly print media and professional photojournalists were highly influential in determining whose perspectives were seen. Citizen media by protesters didn’t’ make much impact and this category was dominated by those tweets by the white right wing that I mentioned earlier.

So, when we think about citizen media which goes viral or gets thrust into the spotlight, we’re thinking about exceptional cases. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of tweets in this sample had very little influence on others discussing the topic of the Zamdela protest. They were neither retweeted nor mentioned by others using the keyword. Instead, a small number of high influence accounts (in this case primarily from mainstream media) received the lion’s share of the retweets and mentions.

In conclusion, I would challenge you to consider how our society and our public media can work against these ‘power laws’ and harness viral to help to equalise public participation. We can see the huge potential of social media to extend and amplify ‘pavement radio’, but there is still extremely limited grassroots use, especially of Twitter. People who do have access and are using the networks to report their experiences are not being heard. Neither are their perspectives being seen.

Nonetheless, I believe both journalists and activists could be playing a huge role in bridging this gap between affordable and accessible messaging platforms and mainstream media. Only when this happens to a far greater extent than it does now will people learn to trust the power of documenting and sharing their experiences, and start to become confident that they, too, are being heard.

Walton, Marion. 2013. Invisibility 2.0? Zamdela protests, young people’s participation and social media.  Digital Youth & Learning Unconference, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya, May 15-17.

More Processing … this time for Kids

mapcoords mapcoords ms_pacman

Mozilla is running a free online collaborative course to explore new ways of teaching digital literacies through making and learning together. It’s called Teach the Web This leads up to the Mozilla #makerparty, which celebrates the web and making, two of my favourite things.

I’ve joined a group who are discussing ‘Creative Coding with Canvas’ and so am hoping to get some new ideas and tips about how to teach coding-shy design students and newbies about the HTML Canvas element. As my contribution to this group, I thought I’d share an introductory programming course that I’ve been running with a group of teens at the Ikamva Youth branch in Makhaza, Cape Town.  They call themselves the Ikamvacoders – what an inspiring group of young people.

Hard-working Ikamvacoders take a break
Hard-working Ikamvacoders take a break

The course introduces some basic programming topics using Processing and Processing.js, a language designed for visual expression. Processing is based in Java, but now makes it easy to export procedural art, interactive sketches, simple games and animations to Javascript, via processing.js, which uses  the HTML5 canvas element. Processing now also provides a very effective and easy Android mode.

Learning Processing from Pacman

Processing comes with absolutely beautiful tutorials, clearly explained examples and extensive online resources. In my experience, although these resources are aimed at non-programmers, they are generally pitched a bit high for absolute beginners, particularly for kids. The Ikamvacoders asked whether they could learn how to build a simple 2D game. This led me to develop some absolute beginner Processing tutorials around a Pacman theme.

As you’ll see the tutorials are still quite sketchy, and I hope to have some time to put in some extra explanatory details which I handle verbally in my classes. But the examples all work and they should provide a good starting point for anyone who wants to take this visual approach to teaching programming.

The Ikamvacoders also want to make web portfolios and I’m looking forward to introducing them to some of the new Mozilla tools, so that they can start publishing their own work using tools such as Thimble and Popcorn Maker, which look perfect for kids and teens working at this introductory level.

Future goals – mobile Processing

I’m extremely impressed with how the Ikamvacoders have taken to  Processing, but its frustrating that they have so little access to computers, so little time to practice their skills. Overall my objective is to investigate mobile interfaces to developing Processing sketches. These need to work on the phones even when they are out of airtime (this happens a lot of the time). This kind of app will allow them to tinker and mess around more,  even when they’re not at the computer.

If I have time, I’ll also post about a similar course I run with media students at the University of Cape Town, where the focus is on webmaking for journalists.