#Egypt was the most popular Twitter hashtag in 2011, edging out other less revolutionary contenders like #JustinBeiber. 'The power of we' is the theme of today's Blog Action Day, and although 'beliebers' might not necessarily agree, there could hardly be a more powerful example of the power of we than the thousands of people brought together (often through social media) across the Middle East and North Africa to hold their governments to account and demand democratic change. My last post looked at Ghana's strong democratic tradition, and in this one I'm going to look at how DFID is supporting social media and technology as positive forces in the upcoming December elections in Ghana.
After violence broke out following the 2007 Kenyan election, a group of Kenyan bloggers and activists rapidly put together a website, Ushahidi (meaning testimony in Swahili), which would allow Kenyans to submit reports on violent incidents breaking out across the country. Collating information that was submitted on mobile phones and through the internet, crowdsourcing and mapping it out across the country. Ushahidi could create a more up-to-date and accurate picture of what was happening on the ground than the media or security services could manage.
Since then the technology has been used across the world from elections in Nigeria to the tsunami in Japan, and through STAR Ghana UK aid is supporting Ghana Votes a website which will use the Ushahidi platform to monitor Ghana's election in December.
In a country of 25 million people but only 250,000 telephone lines and 50,000 fixed broadband subscribers (World Bank 2010), mobile phones are the primary means of communication for many, and particularly for young, politically engaged Ghanaians, social media is a crucial part of that. In the run up to the elections, and on the day itself, trained journalists and representatives from civil society will report back to Ghana Votes from across the country on everything from the length of queues at polling stations to alleged incidents of hate speech. Members of the public can also text in for free (or send in audio or video), and a team of volunteers will go through all the reports, assessing their veracity, comparing their reports with those from journalists and the security services, and plotting the incidents across a map of Ghana.
Millions of Ghanaians will be able to track online in real time exactly what is happening across the country. If there are allegations of vote rigging or ballot box stuffing, Ghana Votes will mean people are aware of them, and can press for action. As well as being used to track any possible problems with the election in Ghana, the information provided can also be used by journalists in writing stories, by civil society for advocacy, and after the election academics and researchers will access it.
Ghana Votes is not a political project, but by giving people information to make decisions for themselves, it underlines the credibility and transparency of the election process for Ghanaians. Ultimately, the power of technology like Ghana Votes is that it democratizes information. Citizens can be involved in monitoring elections themselves, and at a glance can find out exactly what is happening where. Perception is crucial - the moment a democratic election is not perceived to be fair is the moment it fails, and so the transparency that platforms like Ushahidi can provide is crucial.
Next month DFID is co-hosting an exciting conference, Open Up! - together with the Omidyar Foundation and Wired Magazine - where entrepreneurs, government and civil society will come together to galvanise action in the fast-growing field of open government. It will show how web and mobile technologies can drive more engagement of citizens in government and showcase entrepreneurs' innovations and experiences from around the world.
Ghana Decides is another online project supported by DFID through STAR Ghana which uses social media as a tool for promoting democracy and accountability. It launched a social media campaign called "#Iregistered" earlier this year encouraging Ghanaians to take part in the biometric voter registration exercise and asking them to report back on their experiences. Its website hosts a series of election related blogs and it will launch a further campaign encouraging people to vote on election day itself.
Social media and technology are not, of course, an unmitigated source for good in promoting democracy and open societies. As much as media reports point towards anecdotal evidence from the Arab spring of the democraticising power of Facebook and Twitter, at the same time terrorist groups like Al Shabab and Boko Haram were using them to recruit new members – as well as to empower and inform, these channels can be used to radicalise, exclude and enrage.
Whilst social media might be able to direct public attention towards crucial political events one minute, it can rapidly change direction the next. For example, although #Egypt might have edged out #JustinBeiber, blog and newspaper coverage of the Iranian 'Green Revolution' dropped dramatically after the death of Michael Jackson. Likewise, whilst social media campaigns like Kony 2012 can succeed in drawing millions of people's attentions towards issues, they can risk manipulating the facts, simplifying complex issues, and their 'awareness raising' can fail to actually move people from talk to action.
There are of course, therefore, limits to how far projects like Ghana Votes and Ghana Decides can reach. Only something like 10-15% of Ghanaians use the internet, of the 18 phone subscriptions (World Bank 2010) only around a third are actually used for text messaging anyway (Afrobarometer Ghana 2012). The main way most Ghanaians gain information is still by radio, so a platform like Ghana Votes which is online, and in English rather than a local language, is not going to be accessible to large numbers of the population. However, the project is looking to address some of these issues by instituting a telephone number people can call for free to report incidents, for example, and providing this in a number of different local languages.
Ultimately, however, projects like Ghana Votes aren't seeking to replace traditional forms of political engagement or media, but rather both to amplify and augment them, to channel messages, and have a bridging function in bringing information to wider audiences. If openness, transparency and access to information are important to democracy, then social media platforms like Ushahidi must be a good thing. Social media cannot create democracy, or cause protests, but it can spread information.
The application of platforms like Ushahidi is not of course limited to elections. In Ghana the team behind Ghana Votes is also thinking about a project after the elections, using social media at a local level to allow citizens to track district level assemblies' delivery on their plans, for example. The kind of accountability this provides could help fill a real gap.
Afrobarometer is a survey that tracks citizens' opinions on democracy and governance in a range of African countries (it is partly funded by DFID - look out for a post on this in the future). The latest results from Ghana show the real demand for the kind of information and mobilisation that projects like Ghana Votes can provide. The survey shows, for example, that only 38% of Ghanaians have joined with other citizens to raise an issue in the past year. However, another 37% would have done so, but did not have the chance. Tools like Ghana Votes can give people this chance by providing them with the information they need to hold authorities accountable.
It wasn't Facebook or Twitter that caused the Arab Spring, and they won't change the course of the elections in Ghana, but they can help give people the information and the means to come together and hold their governments to account - that really is the power of we.