Technological advances and the rapid expansion of social media usage throughout Africa create new opportunities and challenges for electoral security on the continent, according to a group of experts speaking May 22, 2013, at a Topical Symposium on Election Security in Nairobi, Kenya.
Military officials, civilian government personnel, civil society organizations, and subject matter experts attended the event, which was hosted by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), the ACSS Kenya Community Chapter, and the U.S. Embassy in Kenya.
“The rise in technology and social media [coincides] with democratic revitalization and participation,” said Keith Newcomer, a socio-cultural researcher at U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). “Social media has become a key conduit for political participation, commentary, [and] national debate.”
“Social media lowers traditional socio-economic barriers to political involvement,” Newcomer said. Social media and advances in technology increase voter registration and allow candidates to reach their base in ways that can profoundly alter the electoral landscape.
According to Newcomer, these advances have had a particularly strong impact on youth participation in politics. “For youth engagement,” he said, “social media is frequently the spark to fuel grass youth campaigns and participation.”
According to Dr. Mathurin C. Houngnikpo, the Africa Center’s Academic Chair in Civil-Military Relations, advances in electoral technology and the expansion of social media help to deter fraud and prevent electoral violence. Biometric kits, he said, authenticate the identity of the potential voter, reducing the likelihood of repetitive voting, and advances in social media allow the public to monitor the election in real time, providing police with an early warning tool for election-related violence. However, Dr. Houngnikpo also stressed the need to utilize new technologies responsibly.
In the run-up to Kenya’s March 2013 presidential election, many were concerned that the outcome might be similar to the country’s December 2007 presidential poll when a dispute over the results led to post-electoral violence that claimed up to 1,000 lives and left many more displaced or injured. The 2007 crisis left many in Kenya wary of the role of the media in politics, as many news outlets—especially some local radio stations—were believed to have played a major role in disseminating hate speech that contributed to outbreaks of violence.
Major changes to the electoral landscape allowed the country to avoid repeating the 2007 crisis. The passage of a new constitution in 2008 and several important laws governing the electoral system over the course of several years improved the electoral framework and bolstered public confidence in the process.
“As a country, we have learned a lot from the experience in 2007,” said Lilian Mahiri Zaja, Deputy Chairperson of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), emphasizing the effort dedicated to reform and training of the police services in order to strengthen checks on police power. “These preparations were made to ensure that the elections were free, fair transparent and, above all, peaceful,” she said.
Civil society, too, played a major part in ensuring the success of Kenya’s election. One Kenya-based research center focused on the information and communications technology sector, iHub, is developing ways to identify dangerous speech—hateful, inflammatory statements that could incite public violence—and reduce its impact. At the ACSS symposium, Angela Crandall, iHub’s Research Manager, discussed the organization’s Umati Project, an initiative that iHub launched to examine the role that the media plays in fomenting electoral violence. The Umati Project seeks to monitor social media platforms for dangerous speech and provide civic education on dangerous speech “so that Kenyans are more responsible in their communication and interactions.”
However, Dr. Houngnikpo warned that the lack of violence surrounding the 2013 elections does not necessarily indicate that all of the structural problems that contributed to the 2007 crisis have been resolved. “The absence of war is not peace,” he reminded participants.
The symposium was part of the Africa Center’s Topical Program Outreach Series (TOPS), an ACSS program designed to increase the quality and quantity of communications and networking among ACSS alumni, ACSS and U.S. stakeholders and policymakers.
ACSS is the pre-eminent institution for strategic security studies, research, and outreach in Africa. The Africa Center engages African partner states and institutions through rigorous academic and outreach programs that build strategic capacity and foster long-term, collaborative relationships. Over the past 13 years, more than 4,500 African and international leaders have participated in ACSS programs.
The "ACSS Symposium in Kenya" article is courtesy of ACSS.