SMS Africa: Social Media and Security in Africa

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Social and Political Science

Abstract

The project aims to provide a timely understanding of the role social media plays in documenting and driving (in)security in East and West Africa. As more people connect to social media in Africa, their expectations for real-time information is changing, especially in terms of security. This is leading those charged with community safety to alter their ways of interacting with the public, posing new challenges concerning the rapid flow of (mis)information. At the same time it creates opportunities for security sector agencies to engage more directly with the public in providing security-related information, and potentially offers new prospects for an improved cooperative relationship in enhancing community safety. The project works towards the goal of reducing the insecurity that contributes to poverty. It corresponds to question 3 of the call concerning measures that can be taken to reduce the risks and impact of violence and instability that affect the poor.

We have 4 research questions 1) Who are the key stakeholders in relation to social media and security in the case study countries, and who is being excluded? 2) How is social media being used by authorities responsible for community safety to reduce the risks and impact of violence and instability? 3) In what ways can social media be used to increase security or perceptions of security? 4) How can social media serve as an early warning of tensions that threaten security?

We use a mixed methodology uncommon to research in Africa, combining traditional qualitative data collection methods (focus groups, interviews) with social media monitoring. This involves unique engagement with individuals/institutions who are actively using social media in a security context, as well as traditionally excluded groups. It goes beyond analysing posted messages to consider how these messages are perceived, with a view to gaining insight into the effectiveness (both intended and unintended consequences) of social media in the security setting. Social media monitoring software complements the other research methods by allowing real-time access to data relating to unanticipated security incidents (ie, a terrorist attack).

We will examine two variations of insecurity in Africa: sustained threats, and anticipated times of increased insecurity. Kenya will be the case for sustained insecurity due to recent terrorist attacks and a threat of future attacks. Sierra Leone and Tanzania will be cases in which there is an expected heightened risk of instability due to elections. Additionally, we will examine whether lessons learnt from Kenya's exceptionally high use of social media in a security context could be applied to other countries where social media use is in its infancy.

The project will benefit 1) policymakers and authorities responsible for community safety (security services, national electoral bodies, political leaders) 2) non-state actors using social media to shape debates around security (civil society groups; prominent cyber-activists; 'citizen journalists') 3) UK government agencies involved in security and development 4) academic researchers engaging with policymakers regarding security and/or those interested in new research methodologies. These groups all have a role to play in ensuring that the ultimate beneficiaries are poor and vulnerable communities who so often bear the brunt of violence and insecurity.

We will provide evidence-based research on the role social media can play in shaping the relationship between technology, power and the dynamics of democracy. We will map how both those charged with community safety and non-state actors are using social media in a security context, and will develop an understanding of how their actions reflect on the nature of ICT and their ability to re-cast power relations and (in)security and democracy in fragile states. From this we will offer recommendations for best-practices on the use of social media in a security context.

Planned Impact

The research is intended to have an impact on diverse but interrelated beneficiary groups working at different levels in/on security and social media in East and West Africa. The first, and main beneficiary, will be policymakers and authorities with official responsibilities for community safety and development (e.g., security services, national electoral management bodies, local and national political leaders). The second will be non-state actors who are using social media in an attempt to shape debates around security (e.g., civil society groups such as human rights commissions, faith leaders; prominent cyber-activists; journalists; 'citizen journalists'). The third will be UK government agencies involved in security and development. Finally, the project will benefit academic researchers who engage with policymakers regarding security and/or those interested in new research methodologies. These groups all have a role to play in ensuring that the ultimate beneficiaries are poor and vulnerable communities who so often bear the brunt of violence and insecurity.

The project will provide evidence-based research on the role that social media can play in the (in)security of the case study countries. It will map how both those charged with community safety and non-state actors are using social media in a security context, and will develop an understanding of how their actions reflect on the nature of ICT and their ability to re-cast power relations and (in)security and democracy in fragile states. From this we will offer recommendations to the beneficiary groups for best-practices on the use of social media in a range of security contexts.

The project's impact therefore extends to the overall populations of Kenya, Sierra Leone and Tanzania. Conflict and violence frequently lead to a disruption to infrastructure and markets, a rise in defence spending (often at the expense of other state expenditures), and a concomitant decline in economic growth (Thomas & Williams 2013). Understanding the role that social media plays in documenting and driving (in)security in East and West Africa can contribute to alleviating situations that threaten the livelihoods of people in these regions. The project is also relevant to UK government agencies (and other international development partners) in its potential to examine early warnings of tensions/violence overseas. Managing conflict once it has begun is highly costly to the UK (DFID et al 2011).

Our project has both short-term impact and potential impact in the longer term. Currently social media acts as a popular platform on which Africans discuss security incidents. This is especially the case at times of heightened threat, such as the real-time use of Twitter during the Westgate terrorist attack in Kenya. This use of social media is not expected to be a passing trend. Forecasts project a large increase in the use of social media in Africa (Deloitte & GSMA 2012), which indicates that an understanding of the role that social media plays in documenting and driving (in)security in East and West Africa will continue to be valuable beyond the duration of the project funding.

Impact is built into the design of the project. We directly engage with the beneficiary groups from the earliest stages of the project (in the inception workshops) and continue our engagement with them throughout the project timeframe, ending with a workshop to provide research findings and recommendations to the key influencers. The project benefits from the involvement of practitioners in organisations with a record of working with excluded populations. The project partners will use their extensive in-country networks to allow us to have maximum impact by targeting those who can affect change. The comparative analysis in the final report will also provide lessons learnt from the case study countries to be applied internationally to other contexts where social media use is in its infancy.
 
Title Political cartoons 
Description In collaboration with a Sierra Leonean cartoonist, the project generates a series of six political cartoons to help present research findings to populations with lower literacy levels. 
Type Of Art Artwork 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact Anti-hate speech messages were able to be spread nationally and internationally, particularly valuable to populations with lower literacy rates 
 
Description While much of the research on social media focuses on its potential to challenge forms of state power, our findings (while varied across countries) highlight ways that social media is often legitimising or reproducing traditional power structures. This is only furthered through increasing crackdowns on social media use that is deemed critical of the government (as in Tanzania) and proposed plans to legislate its use (as in Kenya and Sierra Leone). Furthermore, we found official integration of social media into the state policing practices to further privilege certain demographics and areas of the country. Still, our research does acknowledge cases where social media has made important contributions to challenging government narratives and opening up broader public debates about sensitive political and security topics. For example, we show this through the case of social media's role in pressuring more government transparency around the rate of casualties in Kenya's fight against Al Shabaab. Variations in findings across countries highlight our findings that social media use and its effects are highly dependent on socio-economic factors as well as the political history of a country. As such, we found that remote data collection on social media often was unable to account for the nuanced uses and perceptions of those reading/sharing social media messages. Our research shows the value of more traditional qualitative social science methodologies (such as interviews and focus group discussions) in the study of new digital technologies. Our research demonstrates the value of looking beyond the technologies to understand the lived realities of the people that use them.
Exploitation Route The findings can be used by policy makers in the UK and Africa as well as non-governmental organisations to better understand 1) varied uses in social media across countries and demographics and, 2) how to better engage with users to increase effectiveness. For example, in Sierra Leone we found that many of the well-intentioned foreign NGO sponsored programmes seeking to use social media to mitigate election-related violence were not reaching local audiences because they clashed with the style of use in the country. More specifically, they were too data-heavy for people buying data credit in small amounts, and used platforms unfamiliar to local audiences.

On the academic side, this funding has helped create a network of researchers, spanning numerous countries, working on social media and politics in Africa. When we started this project no such network existed. In the course of the research we have organised conference panels, academic workshops, and have ultimately published an edited volume drawing on work by eighteen authors based across four continents. While this book has just recently been published, given the growing awareness of the importance of social media in African states we anticipate it to be widely read and much cited by other academics.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

URL http://www.cas.ed.ac.uk/research/current_grants/sms_africa
 
Description Our findings have been heavily informed by and contributed to work conducted by civil society organisations in Africa. In particular, in Sierra Leone our research served as the basis for civil society organisations to campaign against the spreading of false news and hateful messages during the election period. This was enabled through local civil society meetings across the country, a cartoon campaign, and messages on local media (radio, newspapers). This understanding about people's concerns and how they access information (and barriers such as low literacy levels) allowed for engagement that was specific to the needs of the local communities. Another of the key ways we have maximised the impact on the wider academic community is by distributing our edited volume to libraries, academic institutions, and research institutions throughout East and West Africa. These organisations allow for significantly wider readership in an area which often has limited access to books published in the Global North and/or limited access to digital resources. Our research findings have been distributed widely to the policy-community, especially in the case study countries. For example, our events in Sierra Leone in 2020 were well attended by members of government, local leaders, members of the security services, and NGOs - all of whom have a unique role in the policies and practices of security and social media use. We saw an important part of the project as generating discussions between these stakeholders around the topic and sharing findings from comparable countries for the stakeholders to learn from. For instance, in Sierra Leone we invited an expert on social media and security in Nigeria to attend, which was very well-received and helped illustrate similar challenges and ways to overcome them from another country in the region. Non-academic stakeholders have been central to the design and implementation of the research especially as two of the Co-I's are from non-academic organisations. They have ensured that all events in the case study countries are well-attended by relevant non-academic stakeholders. They have also distributed findings to organisations that are often neglected in academic events or those focused in urban cities. For example, during this reporting cycle NMJD in Sierra Leone conducted outreach events throughout rural areas of Sierra Leone to share research findings with rural and community based organisations. In the Covid Impact section I have indicated that on balance the pandemic had no impact on the project. It did have an impact, but we managed to deal with the situation: the COVID-19 lockdowns required us to cancel two large events and created barriers for face-to-face engagement. Yet, while international travel and events were limited, localised travel still allowed our partners to conduct outreach events and share findings with local communities. We also utilised online opportunities to have meetings with individuals and teams that were not initially planned to be held digitally. For example, Dwyer was engaged with the cyber security team at Africa Centre for Strategic Studies in Washington D.C. to share findings and discuss challenges to security in the digital sphere in Africa. She attended several follow on events with leaders in the field in Africa - opportunities that were shifted online due to COVID-19.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

 
Description Civil society exchange between Kenya and Sierra Leone
Geographic Reach Africa 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact The project developed an exchange between civil society leaders in Sierra Leone and Kenya to help facilitate an sharing of ideas/lessons learned around ways to use social media to counter hate speech around election periods. Ideas generated are being implemented in the run-up to Sierra Leone's elections in March 2018.
 
Description My data collection on security issues as discussed on social media in East Africa included interviews in Kenya about images of an upsetting and disturbing content to the informants. I have incorporated my experience of this into the 'interviews' and 'focus groups' classes of my 'Research in Africa' postgraduate course in the Graduate School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh (and which I also give elsewhere, eg. Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya, July 2019). I have also included in many of the other classes for the course my reflections on more general issues that inform my knowledge of conducting research in Africa - including experience from Sierra Leone, which offers the class with a fresh perspective now from West Africa. All the postgraduate students - including those from Africa - engage in research as part of their degree, and some go on to jobs that involve engagement with policymaking.
Geographic Reach Africa 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
 
Description Stakeholder event in Sierra Leone
Geographic Reach Africa 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Stakeholder event brought civil society leaders, journalists, and education leaders together with police leadership in Sierra Leone. This enabled frank discussions that are rare in a country where there is tension between the police and public. Participants explained that the event helped them better understand the positions of the police. The police invited Dwyer back for follow-up conversations to learn more about ways social media can be used to build stronger civil-police engagements.
 
Description ESRC Impact Accelerator
Amount £15,300 (GBP)
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
End 07/2018
 
Description 'SMS_Africa' Twitter account 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We have created a project Twitter account ('SMS_Africa') and are actively tweeting social media and security-related stories. This has helped us identify new potential informants. We are giving our account name to informants in the field, and in many cases they subsequently follow us. We feel this interactive form of output has the potential to develop our research as well as feed back to stakeholders in a more timely manner than some more traditional methods.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016
 
Description 'Social Media in Africa: Beyond the hashtag' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The project also organised the symposium 'Social Media in Africa: Beyond the Hashtag' in April 2017 (Edinburgh, UK),
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://centreofafricanstudies.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/beyond-the-hashtag-three-key-spheres-in-whic...
 
Description Lectures in Eldoret, Kenya 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I was invited to Moi University to present a series of lectures to postgraduate students from East Africa (Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda) on conducting qualitative data collection in Africa. I drew on some of the techniques that I picked up conducting interview and focus group discussions for the project fieldwork in Tanzania. Eldoret, Kenya, 16 July 2019. A local politician and a member of the electoral commission were also present at one of the lectures.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Media interviews in Sierra Leone 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Team members participated in media interviews with Sierra Leonean press about social media and elections in Africa. The interviews were published in various national media outlets including: Standard Times (Feb 21 202), Awoko (Feb 21 2020), Momentum (Feb 19 2020), and Politico (Feb 19 2020).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description News article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Publication from this project mentioned in Bloomberg Business week article, 'Online Disinformation Campaigns Undermine African Elections': "Political propaganda has become completely "normalized" as parties across Africa have grown more sophisticated in their use of social media, says Thomas Molony, co-author of the book Social Media and Politics in Africa. "It's when the pernicious content gets in, and the line between verified news and fake news is crossed, that we should be concerned," Molony says."
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-13/disinformation-campaigns-on-facebook-twitter-goog...
 
Description Public seminar in Edinburgh 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A public seminar was held to present the findings of the project related edited volume, 'Social Media and Politics in Africa.' Three project-related speakers presented their findings and answered audience questions afterwards. There were many audience questions and requests for advice and additional information. Most of the audience were prograduate students or staff members but there were also members of the general public in attendance.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Public seminar in Oxford 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited by Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, Technology and Mobilities in Africa seminar series to present on 'Social Media Warfare and Kenya's Conflict with Al Shabaab in Somalia', Oxford, 6 March 2018
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/videos/technology-and-mobilities-in-africa-seminar-series-social-media-warf...
 
Description Public seminar in Sierra Leone 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A public seminar and debate was held at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone with 3 collaborators of the SMS:Africa project. The event involved mostly postgraduate students and staff of the Mass Communications Department and Politics Department along with some members of the public. The event involved a lively debate and discussion with many questions and comments from the audience. The staff members explained that the event was significant especially because they have limited international academic speakers and it allowed for the introduction of new research to their student's course.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description SMS:Africa closing stakeholder workshop for Sierra Leone 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Workshop to present findings of the project and related publications in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Event included diverse audience such as civil society, political representatives, state security officials, members of the National Electoral Commission, religious leaders, and media. The vent involved a lively discussion with many participants sharing the experiences and work of their own organisations. The findings were presented in numerous local media outlets by reporters who attended the event. Following the event the project team received numerous requests for additional information and copies of the project publications.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Seminar in Nairobi 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited by organisers of Anthropology of Human Security in Africa (ANTHUSIA) Summer School to present on 'Social media warfare and Kenya's conflict with Al Shabaab in Somalia: Methodological considerations', British Institute in Eastern Africa, Nairobi, 12 January 2019. ANTHUSIA is a multi-disciplinary research project in the Anthropology of Human Security in Africa conducted by a consortium of four universities in Aarhus (Denmark), Edinburgh (United Kingdom), Leuven (Belgium) and Oslo (Norway). The consortium also collaborates with numerous nonacademic and academic partner organizations with expertise in a variety of different human security issues in Africa that will contribute to the Early Stage Researchers' training and the project's impact and dissemination.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Seminar in Stuttgart 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I was invited by the US Navy to present to students (who are policymakers and strategists) on their FAO Phase II AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) course. My lecture was for a session on 'Shaping the Domestic Context: Social media and new dynamics in domestic politics', Stuttgart, Germany, 14 September 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Seminar in Warwick 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I was invited by the principal investigator of the UNDERstanding West African culture to pRevent cybercrimEs (UNDERWARE) project, University of Warwick, to present on 'Cyber Hustlers in The Gambia'. Warwick, 13 March 2017. The presentation drew heavily on research conducted by a former doctoral student of mine, Dr Ismalia Ceesay, for his PhD - it was much more his work than mine. However, the invitation came as a result of the organisers knowing of the SMS Africa project, and in the discussion that followed I drew on my knowledge of the topic as a result of the project. I understand that staff from GCHQ were present at my talk, and someone from NCA.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Social media and elections workshop in Sierra Leone 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact This workshop addressed the topic os social media and elections in Africa and followed research conducted during the 2018 elections in Sierra Leone. The workshop primarily focused on civil society organisations due to the very active role they played in attempting to curtail election-related violence. It also attracted members of the government and the media. The workshop generated an enthusiastic debate, particularly around issues of misuse and regulation of social media. We were invited to return and share further findings.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Social media and the political sphere in Africa: reshaping democratic engagement 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Panel discussion at the 7th European Conference on African Studies (ECAS 2017) with the theme: Urban Africa - Urban Africans: New encounters of the rural and the urban, which they organised on behalf of the Research Network of African Studies Centres in Europe AEGIS.

Abstract:

The huge growth in smartphone sales in Africa has seen a rapid uptake in subscribers to social media platforms. The technology enables people across the continent to share their ideas about politics with a wider audience than ever before both domestically and internationally. Activists and governments alike have turned to social media as a new form of political mobilization. Yet while frequently celebrated as a liberation technology, some governments are increasingly clamping down on social media to curtail freedoms. Legislators have sought to introduce laws to regulate social media use, and in the most extreme cases, governments have simply shut down the technology that enables communication via social media. Despite the rapid increase in social media uptake, it has been disproportionally concentrated in urban areas. This raises critical debates as to whether social media is widening or bridging the democratic digital divide within and between countries. This panel considers the role of social media in reshaping political engagement on the African continent. It welcomes topics concerning social media and: accountability, diasporic engagement, elections, protest movements, regulation, security, and surveillance. While focussed on political issues in Africa, the panel is open to a variety of disciplines or interdisciplinary approaches.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://ecasconference.org/2017/panels#4808