The violent protests in the United Kingdom (UK) from July–August 2011 were driven through Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger, as were the popular protests in Tunisia that forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali out of office on 14 January 2011.
Similarly, protests mediated by social media in Egypt contributed to the forced resignation of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011 and subsequent legislative elections in December 2011.
These citizen-led engagements, which were largely facilitated by social media, have brought to the fore the latent potential of social media platforms to drive political and electoral participation.
As Kenyans gear up for the upcoming elections, one is wont to ask: What potential do social media tools have to facilitate active citizen political engagement?
Political participation is a fluid concept and the notion encompasses a diverse set of activities. It can be defined as citizen acts to influence the selection of and/or the actions taken by political representatives. In other words, political participation can be understood as referring to the various mechanisms through which the public express their political views and so exercise their influence on the political process.
The various forms that political participation takes include voting, which is regarded as the most common and most basic form of political action. Electoral participation also encompasses various other processes, such as citizens’ involvement in election campaigns, attending meetings or attempting to access information on different political parties.
Other forms of participation include citizens’ engagement in grassroots politics within their local communities through attending community gatherings and interacting with their local political representatives.
Political participation also includes actions such as attending civil protests or signing petitions on different issues and joining interest groups that engage in lobbying or political advocacy. The forms of political participation mentioned here are by no means exhaustive.
It is worth noting that various factors influence political participation. The way citizens participate politically is not homogeneous. Rather, the citizens who participate in the most common form of political activities constitute an unrepresentative set of citizens in terms of age, sex, and economic or educational status, among other variables.
Political participation is expensive and requires a great deal of investment from individuals willing to engage in political activities. The process is quite taxing as far as time, money, knowledge and information are concerned. For example, in Kenya, where poverty is rife and the cost of living punishing, lack of money prevents people from travelling to exercise their right to vote.
These financial constraints can also keep citizens from attending community meetings or in engaging in other activities that require any financial investment. Within contexts where poverty is extensive, time is an important factor that determines whether citizens devote time to political participation or engage in other personal activities.
Kenyans are more likely to devote time to activities that guarantee their survival than to political participation that does not promise an immediate and tangible material outcome for them. Thus, with little time available, Kenyans political activity is heavily compromised.
Many African countries have poor or non-existent ‘political infrastructure’, in terms of things like polling stations and community meeting halls. Physical infrastructure enabling citizens to reach the nearest political infrastructure, and infrastructure for information transmission, is also inadequate, and this significantly hinders political involvement.
One of the major obstacles to Kenyans political engagement is undeniably the issue of lack of access to information that would allow enlightened political choices. There is a dearth of reliable information in many African countries and some governments heavily curtail access to what is available.
By June 2016, Kenya had 5.5 million Facebook users, while even people outside of this country know the futility of taking on the vicious army known as KOT – Kenyans on Twitter. What, then, is the place of social media in political participation?
In this general election, Social media will have great potential in encouraging collaborative political participation among Kenyans. Accessible social media platforms will offer ordinary Kenyans the opportunity to interact more directly and actively with their political systems and leaders.
Social media tools will also allow diaspora Kenyan communities to get involved in socio-political processes back home. Kenyans engage with social media for various reasons but essentially it is all about the human psyche.
Kenyans will use social media to air their views and express (in some cases) anger and dissatisfaction in this electioneering period. Passion drives social media. Kenyans will make comments on and reply to issues that affect them directly.
The best way to examine this further is to look at specific forms of political participation and the impact social media can have on them. Various Kenyan political actors engaged in the electoral processes are increasingly using social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs in their campaigns.
Political parties, especially Jubilee and NASA and independent political advocacy and interest groups are increasingly using Facebook, Twitter and political blogs as mediating platforms to engage citizens. Similarly, citizens are employing social media to participate in the electoral process.
There are some pertinent examples of social media being widely used across the world to encourage citizens’ political involvement. It is widely known that running election campaigns through social media platforms is a tactic that has been successfully employed in developed countries.
For example, US President Barack Obama ran a widely popular election campaign in 2008 that employed social media to good effect. Various political players in Africa have made significant strides towards running election campaigns through social media. Nigeria and Zambia offer good recent illustrations in this regard.
Edwin Wangoli Wanjawa teaches political Sociology at Pwani University.