While more people are using the internet and social media, they aren’t entirely happy with what they see. On the positive side, most respondents who are aware of social media say it “makes people more informed about current events” (87% on average across nine countries surveyed in 2019) and “helps people have more impact on political processes” (72%).
On the negative side of the ledger, however, strong majorities say social media usage “makes people more likely to believe false news” (74%) and “makes people more intolerant” (60%).
A majority (54%) of those aware of social media say that the overall effect of social media usage is positive. The exception is Botswana, where only 35% see social media as positive.
If “false news” is a problem, who do people think is responsible for spreading it? Two-thirds (66%) of respondents blame politicians and political parties. A staggering 83% in Kenya blame this group, but in every country except Angola (36%), majorities point the finger at political figures.
Still, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Six in 10 respondents (61%) attribute misinformation to “social media users” in general, while substantial portions blame government officials (53%), the news media and journalists (50%), and activists and interest groups (44%).
For all their potential dangers, respondents are generally opposed to government restrictions on access to the internet and social media. Across the nine countries, only 34% agree that “information shared on the internet and social media is dividing (our country), so access should be regulated by government”, while 51% endorse unrestricted access. Support for open access is strongest in Côte d’Ivoire (63%), while only minorities support it in Ghana (48%), Kenya (44%) and Malawi (40%).
Support for open access is particularly strong among people who use the internet every day (67%), youth (56%), urban residents (55%), men (54%) and respondents with post-secondary education (65%).
These findings highlight the ambivalence that many people – not just in Africa – feel about the emerging digital era. People want broad access to the tools they have used to gather information and keep in touch with family and friends. Internet and social media shutdowns of the types that have hit almost half of the continent’s countries since 2015 are likely not popular. These tools have become even more crucial because of “social distancing” and lockdowns.
On the other hand, unfettered internet and social media have a dark underside, with messages designed to misinform, discriminate and polarise. When fears are heightened, at election times or during pandemics, these threats are magnified.
Fact-checking and “digital literacy” initiatives will go only so far, and calls for government censorship will likely grow. The danger is that governments will use these very real concerns as excuses to target their opponents selectively, in ways that stifle opposition, fair elections and accountability.
By Jeffrey Conroy-Krutz and Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny for The Conversation