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Opinion

Silencing social media weakens accountability to poor and marginalised

State-citizen interactions are moving online, even in fragile, conflict and violence-affected settings, with people using social media platforms to enhance accountability relations. This helps raise the issues and voices of the poorest and more marginalised segments of the population. But will a tightening of social media regulations put this important space for accountability and citizen action at risk?

People demonstrating against removal of fuel subsidies in Nigeria, 2012
A protester uses his mobile phone to take photos of demonstrators protesting against the removal of a popular fuel subsidy by the Nigerian government in 2012. Credit: George Osodi/Panos

Many countries use Internet laws to tighten control on social media. While social media regulation is a sensible and needed move worldwide, undemocratic regimes abuse their power and misuse these policies to stifle government transparency and citizen demands for accountability. This is particularly worrying as these regimes already have a pretty bad record of allowing citizens to voice opposition and hold them to account. Using, as their justification, the need to combat fake news, uphold decency and morality, or safeguarding the integrity of the country, they are using these laws to censor online communication that is critical of their administration and leadership. Unknowingly (or not), what they are doing in the process is silencing the voices of the poorer and more marginalised segments of their population, rather than benefitting from their feedback.

In the Governance at the Margins project, part of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme, we analyse the role intermediaries play in helping people solve their problems and mediating state-citizen relations in fragile, conflict and violence-affected settings (FCVAS) in Africa and Asia. Overwhelmingly male, intermediaries such as traditional leaders, religious authorities, political brokers, and community mobilisers are the first port of call in the governance chain for the poor and marginalised to access the state. One thing we’ve noticed while exploring the strategies they use to reach the state on behalf of the poor and marginalised is the importance of social media platforms in their actions.

Intermediaries use social media to stay informed, share information with fellow citizens, and engage with public authorities

Almost every intermediary watches news channels and follows politicians on social media to remain updated on local and national politics so they know who to approach when needed. In one country we studied, when Covid-19 struck and the government increased its restrictions on media freedom, intermediaries turned to Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube to learn more about Covid-19 and how to keep safe, as well as to get updates on possible lockdowns and distribution of relief assistance. Some intermediaries complemented this information-gathering through their Facebook accounts: one community mobiliser told us that, as a result of people’s comments on his organisation’s Facebook page, they learnt that not only were lower middle-class white collar workers being left out, but also how they should deliver such assistance in a subtle manner to avoid shame.

It’s rare for poor people to own a smartphone; they are costly and many poor are illiterate and live in locations (rural or urban) with limited access to electricity. On top of that, access to the Internet is very limited, particularly in rural areas. Intermediaries who can afford a smartphone use their WhatsApp status (through photos and videos) to keep people updated within their communities and beyond. For instance, an intermediary uploads information on a particular issue through her WhatsApp status and intermediaries in other parts of the same village then spread the message after seeing her posts. Some intermediaries use this strategy to announce new initiatives by their organisations or to share press releases from their political parties.

Intermediaries also use social media platforms to inform public authorities of the status of the population. This can range from highlighting a particular issue to local authorities using personal contacts through WhatsApp or asking for help from the concerned authorities, to jumping the governance chain if local authorities don’t perform and reaching higher public authorities by posting videos on YouTube, or directly posting in these authorities’ personal and institutional Facebook and Twitter pages.

Mobilising and aggregating poor and marginalised voices

Intermediaries not only use WhatsApp to inform fellow citizens, but also to mobilise them and pool their voices. For instance, intermediaries from outside poor neighbourhoods have helped people with smartphones to form WhatsApp groups where information on collective issues can be shared, discussed, and acted upon. During the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic, a couple of intermediaries in the capital of one country we studied created a WhatsApp group of young citizens who volunteered to take part in the distribution of emergency packages. The group continues to exist today as a platform to discuss other community issues such as a recent cleanliness drive.

Part of their mobilisation strategy is based on building and sustaining networks. As a case in point, intermediaries who are political activists use Facebook and Twitter to highlight issues of residents in informal settlements within their party circles. Whenever something happens they make videos and share them with their members, who further share videos/posts in other circles. Over time, their established networks play a role in building awareness and making public authorities more attentive. These enlarged networks are particularly useful when intermediaries need to quickly mobilise numbers to show strength in flash protests or to prevent law enforcement agents resorting to violence.

Social media platforms are particularly useful tools for intermediaries to mobilise and aggregate voices crossing gender barriers in more patriarchal settings. Female intermediaries can (literally) get their voices heard in male-dominated traditional village councils where their physical presence is not allowed. More importantly, they can bring about half of the village’s voices – the women’s voices – into the public spaces where public authorities make decisions.

Answerability: justifying actions to the community, demanding answers from public authorities

FCVAS are characterised by weak social contracts, with intermediaries often competing amongst themselves to mediate state-citizen relations. They seek to gain legitimacy in the eyes of both citizens and public authorities not only by trying to solve people’s problems, but also by being answerable to them. This explains why intermediaries constantly use Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter to upload updates on the work they and their organisations do. In a reciprocal relationship, households give legitimacy to intermediaries (by being mobilised when needed). As an intermediary said, “we need them more than they need us.”

Finally, intermediaries use social media to make public authorities answerable for their actions – and inactions. In one setting we studied, the case of a recently murdered boy in a rural area was not being pursued by the police. An intermediary launched a protest, spreading videos on WhatsApp and Facebook to hold the authorities accountable for their inaction. In another setting, some intermediaries trained local community members to efficiently use social media, particularly Twitter, to record abuses of power by local authorities and posting them on higher authorities’ accounts.

State-citizen interactions are moving online, even in FCVAS, with intermediaries using social media platforms to enhance accountability relations. An unregulated control by the state on social media limits intermediaries’ access and use of online spaces, making them less influential. But in countries where governance systems depend on these actors for poor and marginalised voices to be heard, how will governments know if their pro-poor policies are working?

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