Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Politicians and New Media

Popped this one out for the East African recently. Since I haven't figured out how to navigate their website in order to link, here's the article in full. It also means, of course, that this version is blissfully free of editorial interference :)

The Great Plug-In
Elsie Eyakuze
Monday 16th August, 2010

Not all politicians are created equal, and in the Age of Internet there is little that can be done to hide this fact. When news travels at the speed of slightly befuddled light through a testy SeaCom cable, every awful faux-pas and every serendipitous bon-mot can be rendered in pixels for all eternity. There is no better time to learn the careful management of image than now. For a modern politician, what could be deadlier than giving off the scent of staleness?

Tanzania’s state machinery hasn’t been completely oblivious to electronic media. On the side of government a handful of institutions that have done well in terms of procuring some online real-estate. The office of the Controller and Auditor General, for example, has been doing a little posting since 2008, and the Parliament website is a bit of a Nirvana for those who have a love of Hansards and detailed National Budget documents. Most ministries have tried to adopt a website, with varying levels of success.

Political parties have also joined the internet gravy train, and this is where things get interesting. Opposition parties tend to come across as much savvier online than in the print media. It appears that without the mediation of journalists, simple things such as election manifestos and ideological statements can be broadcast with minimum fuss. Opposition parties are also very good at updating their blog-style websites, since they cannot rest on the assumption that they have been around long enough for everyone to know what they are about. For the roughly 8% of us who have electricity, this is a boon.

By comparison, the CCM website does not fare well. It is dignified, staid, routinely neglected. Most of all, it is simply boring. Everything one should aspire to if one wants to appear about as hip as a hip replacement. In a population where nearly all of us are aged 35 or below, this is an unfortunate oversight. The Grand Old Party has usually been quite handy at keeping fresh with the youth, but perhaps the Grand Old Party is getting old.

Still, you can always count on ‘personal brands’ to excel where their organizations could do better. A few weeks ago, perhaps ever so slightly before the official campaign season officially kicked off, Tanzania’s online residents were surprised to find that their President was apparently following them on Twitter. This caused a day of excitement as the political blogs scampered to post something about it and Twitter users asked the account some probing questions. Of course it is being run by a rather cheerful part of the campaign team, and while it would be easy to assume that no President has the time to fiddle around with Twitter accounts, I wouldn’t put it entirely past this one to check in from time to time.

But His Excellency is just one of many- it has become de rigueur for the new class of Tanzanian politician to have a full online suit: Twitter is just the beginning and a wonderful way to get their followers to retweet their 140 characters of propaganda. There is also the all-important Facebook which gives a thin veneer of warmth to their interactions with thousands of ‘friends’ all over the country. The cream of the crop go so far as to run personal blogs outside of their party’s online efforts.

And thus the internet has become a way for young politicians to distinguish themselves in a time when it is absolutely crucial to appear modern, to appear to be a step ahead of the lumbering masses of their colleagues in the race to office. While a number of young opposition politicians of solid ambition have been quick to use this medium to promote their ideas- after all, its not like the traditional media will do it for them- only a handful of their CCM counterparts have been similarly efficient. Doubtless there is some institutional inertia at work here.

Social media are an elite concern at this point in time, limited in their reach and somewhat unsuited for mass political campaigns except through SMS. Still, they are important for convincing the reluctant voters in the Blackberry class that as a tech-savvy politician, you might be someone they would like to do business with.


  1. Great article, Elsie. That social media, like Twitter, are not part of everyday life for most people in most of the world is a point that people who do use it too often fail to recognize. Mistaking Tweets as the word of the people leads to bad political analysis about what's going on in many, many countries.

  2. Hey Barak- cheers, it's always good to hear from you. 'Mistaking Tweets as the word of the people...' a common blogosphere mistake. But one usually committed by people who have no lived experience of the 'developing world' to draw upon in their online cogitations. I think of it as the dead give-away for bourgeois armchair activism :)

  3. Elsie, another brilliantly insightful comment on how our politicos are using the web and social media to campaign. In June, we (SID) looked at how other national leaders were campaigning online. We said the following on Paul Kagame:

    "Paul Kagame (Rwanda) has launched a new site (www.mykagame.org) that offers a new
    look at the leader, highlighting his achievements over the years. A previous site
    (www.paulkagame.com) seems not to have been updated since the beginning of the year

    Rwanda has an estimated 300,000 internet users. If we assume that ALL of them are eligible to vote) they represent just 5.8% of the electorate. The web, Facebook and Twitter are great for appearing hip (without the hip replacement!). But for a long time to come in our regional electoral politics, they will remain marginal, but very cool!

  4. Hey Aidan-

    I saw the desperate situation a couple of months back on a webtrawl about Rwanda's elecions. Try googling Kikwete's FaceBook Profiles, or Kibaki's for that matter. Dire.


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