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Only careful WhatsApp use will boost African democracy

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Subject

WhatsApp and African elections.

Significance

WhatsApp has become one of the main ways that election candidates seek to communicate with voters because it is encrypted, easy to use and cheap. However, there is growing evidence that WhatsApp is used more to ‘decampaign’ rivals -- in many cases by distributing ‘fake news’ to smear their reputation -- than to share information about an individual’s personal qualities and manifesto. In recent elections in Kenya and Nigeria, the platform was also used to spread false stories about election violence that were designed to undermine voter turnout in certain areas, exacerbating political and ethnic tensions.

Impacts

  • The growing use of WhatsApp will make it easier for opposition parties and candidates with fewer resources to be electorally competitive.
  • By creating opportunities for tech savvy people to play an important role in election campaigns, social media facilitates youth engagement.
  • WhatsApp’s influence will inspire growing conflict between governments and digital rights activists and opposition parties over regulation.
  • Cross-party support is greatest for pushing electoral commissions and the police to enforce more aggressively existing regulations online.
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