Digitalising democracy in SADC: Insights from 2019 Elections
Below is an excerpt from a policy insight published by the South African Institute of International Affairs.
n 2008 Barack Obama won the race for the US presidency, partly thanks – it is believed – to his ability to connect with, and garner the vote of, the American youth through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. A decade later the British public relations firm Cambridge Analytica gained global notoriety for harvesting the private data of Facebook users without their consent and using it for political advertising. These contrasting events have become paradigmatic of the potential and pitfalls that new Internet-based technologies hold for electoral processes, and the democratic enterprise generally.
The so-called ‘digitalisation of democracy’ – defined here as the increasing use of digital technologies in, as well as their effects on, democratic processes – is changing the way elections are administered globally (for example in the increasing adoption of e-voting). Within a short space of time it has also transformed other aspects of the election process, such as how candidates canvass for votes, thus becoming a significant determinant of electoral outcomes. Perhaps more importantly, the proliferation and increased adoption of digital technologies worldwide is gradually changing the political landscape within which elections are conducted, with major implications for the very notion of democracy. This is seen in, for example, a more vocal youth voice in political debates on online platforms, although this is often not translated into actual engagement.
Despite lagging behind in Internet penetration, sub-Saharan Africa is no exception to ongoing transformations in democratic discourse and practice in the digital age. If anything, the deficit in information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure, coupled with the huge digital divide in Africa, means that many of the pitfalls associated with this phenomenon, such as disinformation and the polarisation and distortion of political discourses, have seen concrete manifestation on the continent.
The aims of this policy insight are threefold. Firstly, it explores the concept of the digitalisation of democracy in the context of recently conducted elections in four SADC countries – South Africa, Malawi, Botswana and Mozambique – with an emphasis on the role of social media as a determinant of election outcomes. Secondly, it assesses the impact of the outcomes or anticipated outcomes of these elections on the SADC region and the mandate of the regional organisation. Thirdly, it develops a set of policy recommendations on how SADC member states, individually and collectively, can harness the democratic potential of this phenomenon while mitigating its negative effects.
The reflection begins with a brief discussion of the concept and phenomenon of the digitalisation of democracy, before presenting an overview of its manifestation in the 2019 elections in the region. The third part of the policy insight teases out the implications of these elections for politics and regional integration in the SADC region. The reflection concludes with policy recommendations on harnessing the democratic potential of Internet-based technologies and mitigating their adverse effects in the region.
Read the full publication here.
(Main image: A supporter holds her phone during a campaign rally of Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar in Nouakchott on 30 March 2019. – Carmen Abd Ali/AFP via Getty Images)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.