Principal Investigator: Thomas Stephen Molony. Lead Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Co-investigator: Abu Brima; Mutuma Reteere; Alexander Boniface Makulilo; Maggie Dwyer
The project explores the role social media plays in documenting and driving (in)security in East and West Africa. As more people connect to social media in Africa, their expectations for real-time information is changing, especially in terms of security. This is leading those charged with community safety to alter their ways of interacting with the public, posing new challenges concerning the rapid flow of (mis)information. At the same time it creates opportunities for security sector agencies to engage more directly with the public in providing security-related information, and potentially offers new prospects for an improved cooperative relationship in enhancing community safety.
The project works towards the goal of reducing the insecurity that contributes to poverty. It explores the measures that can be taken to reduce the risks and impact of violence and instability that affect the poor, and focuses on the following questions:
1) Who are the key stakeholders in relation to social media and security in the case study countries, and who is being excluded?
2) How is social media being used by authorities responsible for community safety to reduce the risks and impact of violence and instability?
3) In what ways can social media be used to increase security or perceptions of security?
4) How can social media serve as an early warning of tensions that threaten security?
The study uses a mixed methodology uncommon to research in Africa, combining traditional qualitative data collection methods (focus groups, interviews) with social media monitoring. This involves unique engagement with individuals/institutions who are actively using social media in a security context, as well as traditionally excluded groups. It goes beyond analysing posted messages to consider how these messages are perceived, with a view to gaining insight into the effectiveness (both intended and unintended consequences) of social media in the security setting. Social media monitoring software complements the other research methods by allowing real-time access to data relating to unanticipated security incidents (ie, a terrorist attack).
Two variations of insecurity in Africa will be studied: sustained threats, and anticipated times of increased insecurity. Kenya will be the case for sustained insecurity due to recent terrorist attacks and a threat of future attacks. Sierra Leone and Tanzania will be cases in which there is an expected heightened risk of instability due to elections. Additionally, we will examine whether lessons learnt from Kenya's exceptionally high use of social media in a security context could be applied to other countries where social media use is in its infancy.
The project will benefit
1) policymakers and authorities responsible for community safety (security services, national electoral bodies, political leaders)
2) non-state actors using social media to shape debates around security (civil society groups; prominent cyber-activists; 'citizen journalists')
3) UK government agencies involved in security and development
4) academic researchers engaging with policymakers regarding security and/or those interested in new research methodologies.
These groups all have a role to play in ensuring that the ultimate beneficiaries are poor and vulnerable communities who so often bear the brunt of violence and insecurity. Evidence-based research will be developed on the role social media can play in shaping the relationship between technology, power and the dynamics of democracy. It will map how those charged with community safety and non-state actors are using social media in a security context, and will develop an understanding of how their actions reflect on the nature of ICT and their ability to re-cast power relations and (in)security and democracy in fragile states. Recommendations for best-practices on the use of social media in a security context will also be developed.
- Opinion Piece: 'Analysis across Africa shows how social media is changing politics' by Maggie Dwyer (Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh) and Thomas Molony(Centre of African Studies - CAS, University of Edinburgh) published in The Conversation on 15 August 2019
- Opinion Piece: 'How Sierra Leone polices social media' by Jaimie Hitchin published in Mail & Guardian on 28 May 2018
- Opinion Piece: 'The WhatsApp rumours that infused Sierra Leone’s tight election' by Jaimie Hitchin published in African Arguments on 10 April 2018
The research is intended to have an impact on diverse but interrelated beneficiary groups working at different levels in/on security and social media in East and West Africa.
The first, and main beneficiary, will be policymakers and authorities with official responsibilities for community safety and development (e.g., security services, national electoral management bodies, local and national political leaders).
The second will be non-state actors who are using social media in an attempt to shape debates around security (e.g., civil society groups such as human rights commissions, faith leaders; prominent cyber-activists; journalists; 'citizen journalists').
The third will be UK government agencies involved in security and development.
Finally, the project will benefit academic researchers who engage with policymakers regarding security and/or those interested in new research methodologies. These groups all have a role to play in ensuring that the ultimate beneficiaries are poor and vulnerable communities who so often bear the brunt of violence and insecurity.
The project will provide evidence-based research on the role that social media can play in the (in)security of the case study countries. It will map how both those charged with community safety and non-state actors are using social media in a security context, and will develop an understanding of how their actions reflect on the nature of ICT and their ability to re-cast power relations and (in)security and democracy in fragile states.
From this we will offer recommendations to the beneficiary groups for best-practices on the use of social media in a range of security contexts.
The project's impact therefore extends to the overall populations of Kenya, Sierra Leone and Tanzania. Conflict and violence frequently lead to a disruption to infrastructure and markets, a rise in defence spending (often at the expense of other state expenditures), and a concomitant decline in economic growth (Thomas & Williams 2013). Understanding the role that social media plays in documenting and driving (in)security in East and West Africa can contribute to alleviating situations that threaten the livelihoods of people in these regions.
The project is also relevant to UK government agencies (and other international development partners) in its potential to examine early warnings of tensions/violence overseas. Managing conflict once it has begun is highly costly to the UK (DFID et al 2011).
Our project has both short-term impact and potential impact in the longer term. Currently social media acts as a popular platform on which Africans discuss security incidents. This is especially the case at times of heightened threat, such as the real-time use of Twitter during the Westgate terrorist attack in Kenya. This use of social media is not expected to be a passing trend. Forecasts project a large increase in the use of social media in Africa (Deloitte & GSMA 2012), which indicates that an understanding of the role that social media plays in documenting and driving (in)security in East and West Africa will continue to be valuable beyond the duration of the project funding. Impact is built into the design of the project. We directly engage with the beneficiary groups from the earliest stages of the project (in the inception workshops) and continue our engagement with them throughout the project timeframe, ending with a workshop to provide research findings and recommendations to the key influencers. The project benefits from the involvement of practitioners in organisations with a record of working with excluded populations. The project partners will use their extensive in-country networks to allow us to have maximum impact by targeting those who can affect change. The comparative analysis in the final report will also provide lessons learnt from the case study countries to be applied internationally to other contexts where social media use is in its infancy.