Bruce Mutsvairo and Massimo Ragnedda (2017) Emerging political narratives on Malawian digital spaces, Communicatio, South African Journal for Communication Theory and Research, Volume 43, Issue 2, page 147-167.
Social media platforms are being considered new podiums for political transformation as political dictatorships supposedly convert to overnight democracies, and many more people are not only able to gain access to information, but also gather and disseminate news from their own perspective. When looking at the situation in several sub-Saharan African countries, it becomes clear there are various challenges restricting social media and its palpable yet considerably constrained ability to influence political and social changes. Access to the internet, or lack thereof, is a recognised social stratification causing a “digital divide” thanks to existing inequalities within African and several other societies throughout the world. This article reports on a study that analysed a popular Facebook page in Malawi using a discursive online ethnographic examination of interactions among social media participants seeking to determine the level of activism and democratic participation taking shape on the Malawian digital space. The study also examined potential bottlenecks restraining effective digital participation in Malawi. The article argues that while social media’s potential to transform societies is palpable, keeping up with the pace of transformation is no easy task for both digital and non-digital citizens. The study demonstrated social media’s potential but also highlighted the problems facing online activists in Malawi, including chief among them digital illiteracy. Therefore, the digital sphere is not a political podium for everyone in Malawi as shown by the analysis of digital narratives emerging from the country’s online environment, which opens its doors to only a tiny fraction of the population.
In defining digital activism, Sivitanides and Shah (2011) consider the importance of several factors, including speed, reliability, scale and cost of the internet, which they argue predetermine the existence of digital activism. For the purposes of this study, we have considered digital activism as a form of online participation that allows citizens of all shapes and sizes to comment on and critique messages with the aim of improving their social, political or economic standing. This is based on Kirkpatrick’s (2008) social constructivism approach to technology, which allows users to construct and define the meaning of technology, choosing how and for what purpose it should be used. Still, with digital networked technologies facilitating the convergence of communication channels, the perceptive impact of social media in directing ways through which people gather and share information has been a subject of intense scholarly debate. Online content users have become “produsers” taking a combined role of producing and consuming information (Bruns 2008). Social media is having an increasing impact on the way people live, interact and even think thereby taking a leading role in shaping disaster
responses (Cohen 2013; Sarcevic et al. 2012); crisis communications (Agnes 2012); digital protests (Earl and Kimport 2011; Neumayer and Raffl 2008; Shirky 2008); and political mobilisation (Mneisy 2011; Nisbet and Scheufele 2004) among several other roles. While scholars, such as Van Laer and Van Aelst (2010), believe that social media has simplified the coordination and organisation of events possibly propelling political activism and online civic engagement around the world, some like Gladwell (2010), in a longstanding critique of cyber-Utopianism, have concluded that revolutions took place long before social media was born, driving a sustained debate on the real role of digital platforms in aiding political activism. Morozov (2012) has gone a step further by suggesting the internet empowers digital activists in the same way as it does authoritarian regimes. The current study attempted to identify problems associated with digital activism in Africa zooming in on real issues and speculating on how the digital divide and digital illiteracy stand in the way of enhanced digital participation.
We used Malawi as a central case study chiefly because the southern African nation is one country that hardly dominates headlines to the effect that very few people could comprehend the dynamics of online activism currently taking shape in the country. History is on the side of technologies, which have influenced communication patterns for several years as shown by Carton’s (2009) claim that “throughout much of human history, we have developed technologies that make it easier for us to communicate with each other”. Social media is defined as an exchange of “user-generated content” (Kaplan and Haenlein 2010, 60), “conversational media” (Safko and Brake 2009, 2) or “online word-of-mouth forums” (Mangold and Faulds 2009, 1) and an online resource that Drury (2008) suggests helps people share content: videos, photos, images, text, ideas, insight, humour, opinion, gossip, news.