SMS Africa: Social Media and Security in Africa

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Social and Political Science

Abstract

The project aims to provide a timely understanding of 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 corresponds to question 3 of the call concerning measures that can be taken to reduce the risks and impact of violence and instability that affect the poor.

We have 4 research 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?

We use 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).

We will examine two variations of insecurity in Africa: 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.

We will provide evidence-based research on the role social media can play in shaping the relationship between technology, power and the dynamics of democracy. We 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 for best-practices on the use of social media in a security context.

Planned Impact

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.

Publications


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Description My data collection on security issues as discussed on social media in East Africa included interviews in Kenya about images of an upsetting and disturbing content to the informants. I have incorporated my experience of this into the 'interviews' and 'focus groups' classes of my 'Research in Africa' postgraduate course in the Graduate School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. I have also included in many of the other classes for the course my reflections on more general issues that inform my knowledge of conducting research in Africa - including experience from Sierra Leone, which offers the class with a fresh perspective now from West Africa. All the postgraduate students - including those from Africa - engage in research as part of their degree, and some go on to jobs that involve engagement with policymaking.
Geographic Reach Africa 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers