how social media influences political choices

The increase in the use of smartphones and a increased adoption mobile internet in Africa are fundamentally changing the media ecology of electoral campaigns.

As cell phones become banal, even in the poorest countries of Africa, the use of social media has become ubiquitous. Applications such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and blogs are an integral part of today’s political communication landscape in much of the continent.

These platforms are becoming a dominant factor in electoral processes, playing a huge role in the creation, distribution and consumption of political content.

Their intrinsic influence and power over political content invites closer examination, which has informed my research. Is the rise in the use of social media on the continent a game-changer in political communications? And if so, does social media influence political campaigns?

To answer these questions, I considered the interplay between elements of social media infrastructure and human action.

Infrastructure refers to the architecture that makes up social media systems. Even if the infrastructure is not immediately visible, it plays an essential role in the (re)production and dissemination of information.

Human agency involves the choices human beings make when interacting with social media systems.

I discovered that there are three main ways to influence political campaigns via social media: by algorithms, bots and the people who use them.

The power of algorithms

Social media platforms, with the exception of WhatsApp, are steeped in a system of software, codes and algorithms that manage, interpret and disseminate large amounts of information on social media networks.

The power of the algorithm lies in its ability to search, sort, classify, prioritize and recommend content consumed by users. The system therefore influences the choices we make.

Algorithms monitor your behavior as you interact with certain content on the platform, make assumptions and predictions about your preferences, and then recommend similar content to your feed.

For example, if you’re constantly interacting with posts — by liking, replying, or sharing — from certain people, you’re likely to see more posts from them. If you’ve shown interest in watching videos of a political outfit, you’ll likely get more videos from them.

Which articles are highlighted and why? We may never know why algorithms are coded (by programmers) to rank certain items, individuals, or political parties higher. What we do know is that these algorithms influence what people see or don’t see.

They have the power to amplify and marginalize certain content and, like the human gatekeepers of traditional mass media, determine what information users are exposed to.

Read more: How social media and fake news are hitting mainstream media in Kenya

For example, Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm determines what gets posted on a user’s Top News by only showing a subset of their friends’ stories. These are derived from a combination of factors, such as the type of content (links, videos, or photos) and the frequency and types of interactions with those friends (such as tags or comments).

Similarly, Twitter’s algorithms display ranked tweets. That is, they rank them first and then display what they think is most relevant to the user.

These algorithms are not neutral. They encode political choices, influencing the information seen by users. When a user opens their social media account, they are greeted with algorithmically filtered and recommended content, based on their previous activities and interactions on the platform.

People are then likely to share visible information on non-algorithm-based apps like WhatsApp and Messenger, as well as in mainstream media.

Bots and deepfakes

Social bots can also be deployed to manipulate public opinion and influence votes. They mimic and potentially manipulate humans and their behavior on social media. They run automatically to produce posts, post online, and interact with users through likes, comments, and follows (fake accounts).

The rise of deepfakes is even more worrying. It involves the use of artificial intelligence to fabricate images and videos by replacing the face or voice of someone, usually a public figure, with that of someone else in a way that makes the authentic content.

The intention is often to mislead the public into believing that the targeted public figure has said something (often controversial or provocative).

As Portland Communications, a strategic communications consultancy, noted in its report, How Africa TweetsTwitter bots make up over 20% of influencers in countries like Lesotho and Kenya.

One of the report’s surprising findings was the limited influence of politicians on the conversation.

human element

African political parties are spending huge sums to hire consultancies that specialize in digital campaigns and even in manipulating social media content.

International consulting firms like the now defunct Cambridge Analytica (CA) have been accused of trying to influence digital campaigns in Africa and other parts of the world. CA has worked on several campaigns in Russia, UK, USA and Kenya.

In Kenyait emerged that President Uhuru Kenyatta hired CA ahead of the 2013 elections. CA’s activities sparked global outcry when it became known, culminating in its collapse.

It’s obvious that those with political power and money can easily hire automated systems, like bots, to influence the flow of political content on social media. They can also distort information.

The role of non-human actors should worry anyone interested in democratic processes.

Read more: Social media is being misused in Kenya’s political arena. Why it’s hard to stop it

There are indications that social media algorithms and bots are slowly changing the dynamics of elections in Africa. This can be seen in the number of political parties hiring a new breed of communicators, such as social media managers.

The interaction between the media and politics is central to any understanding of political campaigns, given their role as channels of political information, persuasion and discussion. Social media provides spaces for participation, but also for misinformation and misinformation.

Sharon D. Cole