Contemplating new media and alternative politics

With the dramatic uptake of new media tools – such as mobile applications, digital media, blogging, social networking and video activism – do citizens, citizen groups and service organisations, have the power to challenge the state and mobilize political change?  

Global examples

Researchers Kuntsman and Stein argue that in the Middle East “digital media is becoming a new war zone”. Digital media has changed the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli military occupation by adding to the methods local populations use to “interface with, support, contest, and/or agitate against state policies”.

Social media sites are being used, some more successfully than others, to rally interest for online political demonstration, election campaigning and to logistically organise on-the-ground activity. Sites include Facebook, which boasts 45 million active users who each spend an average of 22 minutes a day on the website. These platforms are enablers and have been taken advantage of, by citizen groups and politicians alike. There are over 500 Obama Facebook groups, many with over a million members. Using these types of tools certainly seems to be a quick and simple method for supporters to demonstrate their political allegiance or air their comments. But are members and fans genuine and active supporters? Does the fact that they join a Facebook group imply that they can be relied upon to take action in a material way? For instance to turn up to vote, boycott a product or to participate at a rally? One positive example was after Khaled Said was beaten to death by the Egyptian police. A Khaled Said Facebook group, was launched in his memory and along with Twitter and YouTube, were central in bringing together Egyptian activists and organising protests to demand justice for Said.

Websites and blogs have similar power. Ikhwanweb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website, is not only a means for individuals to communicate, but according to Paolo d’Urbano, it serves the function of digital archive. Similarly with its archive of over 17,000 reports from the NGO sector, documents the history of the Zimbabwe’s political and economic decline over the past nine years. It serves not only as a digital record, but as an aid to the community’s collective memory and a factual reference point for international media. Likewise the Kubatana blog site, with over 34 different authors, allows ordinary voices to be heard on a wide array of subject matter. BBC, CNN, Sky and the New York times have looked to this blog site for a range of opinions from Zimbabweans.    

Mobile telephony applications have also been widely used for political mobilization. On the 1-2 September 2010 in Maputo, Mozambique, food riots were mobilized through the viral spread of text messages. According to Russell Southwood from Balancing Act, this may have resulted in the government putting pressure on the three local network providers to temporarily ban the SMS function. In Kenya SMS’s were used to incite ethnic violence during the 2008 post election violence. This period gave rise to Ushahidi, a Kenyan crowdsourcing and mapping initiative, which was developed to monitor and map the election violence in Kenya. Ushahidi has been widely used in a variety of other contexts since then. FrontlineSMS, free software for sending and receiving SMS and MMS, has been used in many countries, including in Pakistan and by in Zimbabwe, to deploy SMS’s for election related logistics and results. has combined new and old media over the past 9 years to inform local and international audiences about civic initiatives and political developments – postal services, printed publications, email, website, SMS, Interactive Voice Response (IVR), Twitter, Facebook and blogs have all played their part.

But, to what extent do these examples of new media activities translate into meaningful change? Certainly they facilitate remote participation, but how often does this convert into direct participation and/or action on the ground? We can assess opinion, reflect outrage, inform and inspire recipients, crowdsource information and record events without ever meeting any of the contributors or consumers. Is there a danger that we will mistakenly believe our armchair activists will meet us in the street or at the polls?

The ease with which information can be shared through these dynamic new channels has created a shift in power, but how much of a shift? Given the speed with which government agents can respond to the real or perceived threats of new media exposes somewhat their Achilles heel. And further, how do we effectively measure the impact of new media? This inability to quantify new media’s impact could lead to false optimism/pessimism, incorrect presumptions and mis-aligned reactions being made.

Zimbabwe’s traditional media landscape

In Zimbabwe, in spite of the 2 year old inclusive government, the media continues to suffocate under draconian laws like the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA).

Television and radio remain firmly in the hands of the old guard, with biased and highly politicized coverage. Community radio remains an elusive dream and government has redoubled its efforts to jam the shortwave radio signals of external broadcasters.

The licensing of 5 newspapers in May 2010 has not yet materially changed the media landscape as only 1 of them, NewsDay, is actually operating. Added to this is the fact that the majority of the country’s population live in the rural areas where they struggle to access newspapers due to cost barriers and limited distribution infrastructure. 

Thus, whilst there has been some token liberalisation of the print media, overall Zimbabwe’s traditional media landscape continues to be tightly restricted, repressed and controlled. In its stead, new media initiatives are rising like green shoots in the cracks in the concrete – providing citizens with an alternate voice and means to by-pass the state’s old media road blocks. 
New media in Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe access to the Internet is largely limited to the elite. Due to poor infrastructure and high costs, only about 10% of the population have access to the Internet, limiting the number of people who can take advantage of its wealth of news, opportunities, webmail, social networking sites and blogs. However for these 10% of Zimbabweans, the interactivity and immediacy of these tools, has dramatically improved and altered their communications, information consumption, organising ability and productivity. Zimbabweans in the Diaspora use tools like Facebook, Skype and Twitter to stay in touch with the Zimbabwean situation and to connect with family and friends in the country.

In contrast, web based remittance services like have benefited a wide variety of Zimbabweans, rich and poor. The convergence of the remittance website – interfaces with local mobile telephony and the formal banking sector in Zimbabwe – has facilitated the transfer of funds from exiled Zimbabweans to recipients at home.

Still missing from the local scene are enablers like mobile payments, mobile Internet access, Voice over IP (VoIP) and niceties like USSD, MMS and SMS to Twitter functionality.

Blogs and independent media sites – combined with powerful visual imagery like photographs and videos – can be used by activists to challenge the government, to connect with other activists, to mobilize international audiences and to increase the scale of solidarity movements. However due to the current lack of web access by the vast majority of Zimbabweans – web based media, has limited power to mobilize political change within Zimbabwe.

There is much improved GSM coverage and rapidly growing penetration rates of mobile phone users, which according to government data is up to 49% from 9% in 2008. This sudden growth coincided with the signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) in late 2008 and is in stark contrast to the years preceding when people had to source SIM cards on the black market. Increased competition has brought down the cost of phone lines but has had little impact on the cost of local calls and SMS. Lack of cooperation between mobile network operators has resulted in the duplication of mobile phone towers to services areas, resulting in slower progress in the roll out of infrastructure, all adding up to greater costs for callers.

Mobiles phones – through voice, SMS and interactive voice menus – are increasingly important tools for citizens to receive, validate, gather and offer information. Mobiles offer a large percentage of the population a new means through which to stay informed and share opinions. For instance, mobiles can be used to rally and organise participation, monitor elections, poll opinion, track human rights abuses, assist with more transparent modes of governance and to report back on government’s service delivery. Mobiles can also be used for numerous other positive social benefits in the health, agriculture, education and emergency response sectors; and can be used in a meaningful way to improve the lives of people at the bottom of the pyramid.  

At US$0.25 a minute, Zimbabwe has one of the highest mobile call tariffs in the world. This partly reflects the government’s lack of vision on how mobile communications can be embraced to benefit the nation. The sad result is that these costs and attitudes constrain the potential of mobile communications to increase productivity and improve lives. Government has been clear about its unease of civic and political initiatives using interactive voice response phone services to share information with mobile phone users. Actions to date have largely been directed at the mobile network operators, whose licences they threaten to revoke or not renew. However, out-dated legislation and the inevitable convergence or radio, telephony and web technologies make this a losing battle in the long run.

The power that new media tools can have on mobilizing political engagement and change is debatable and these tools have both benefits and limitations. I will be attending the New Media: Alternative Politics Conference at the University of Cambridge this October, and am looking forward to deciphering these complex issues further. Watch this space for more thoughts, including the opinions of other key researchers and practioners in this area.