Flows and Counter Flows: Social Media, African Audiences, and the News

Post by Sean Jacobs

My remarks are less about a special online teaching or archiving program (that does not exist in my program—I run a concentration on Media and Culture in an Graduate International Affairs program at The New School), but are a series of observations of the shifting digital landscape in Africa. One other caveat: How I use the Internet in teaching is more by the result of trial and error. For example, I used to make blogging part of class assignment but found it both tedious for me as the instructor and hard to monitor. As for the students, they merely went through the motions. I still I incorporate blogging/tumblr or an instagram based projects as class assignments or encourage students to set up social media accounts (which I amplify through my own Twitter account at Africa is a Country), but that is as far as the formulation of it goes.

What I want to say something about is more the changing context in which we work with social media and which may reveal how I approach and relate to media in my classes.

So, here we go: If you were blogging / were active online about Africa in English in the United States around say 2007, like I was, this is what the average blog looked like this: Most of these blogs had begun to make the transition to the WordPress platform, though a few, like Texas in Africa, used blogspot. They had a very basic design, was usually a personal blog, chances were the author or authors were white, was based in Washington DC, was probably an academic (the ones in the example above were based in Atlanta and at Yale at the time). They were mostly earnest, and concerned with US foreign policy debates or arguments back and forth about the politics of development. They were debating whether to side with Jeffrey Sachs or Bill Easterley when it comes to how to tackle poverty on the continent, the ethics of Nicholas Kristof’s reporting on sexual violence or Darfur or Bono’s various schemes to save Africa from itself. Very little about this was what actual Africans thought, say or write about. This counted both for critics as well as boosters of US NGOs, the State Department, USAID or one or other actor’s PR project.

This is in stark contrast with what we see online right now. Very few personal blogs are left that have a wide continental remit. Most of those bloggers have moved on to social media—especially Twitter—and the kinds of debates and arguments they had on their own sites, they now have in the pages of mainstream outlets or on the web on sites like Foreign Policy or blogs hosted on the websites of newspapers. For the latter, think Washington Post World Views blog; famous or infamous, depending on your point of view, for those maps that explain everything and promoted by journalist Max Fisher. There’s also the Monkey Cage blog at The Washington Post. Other academic sites, including journals (best example Social Text) now run blogs that are regularly updated and packed with interesting content. (Even the African Studies Association, with less success, at one point tried to a blogging strategy.)

Of course Africa is a Country is still around, but anyone caring about or focused on African digital culture, will also note something else.

First up, click on this 2 minute Youtube video made by Emansblogs, a Youtube blogger, based in London who would have been referred to as a vlogger 5 or 10 years ago. He has a Youtube channel where he posts short, humorous videos, usually of him looking straight into the camera describing his everyday, critiquing movies or doing something viral. Like when he employs the familiar pranking video genre for his video “Pranking My African Dad.”

Then there’s the vlogger known as Clifford Owusu, son of Ghanaian immigrants in the US. The video that is representative of his approach is “The Reason Africans Don’t Answer the Phone.” In the video, he plays on stereotypes of Africans who instead of answering the phone, rather would dance to the ringtone they downloaded.

Owusu’s video is also interesting for its use of music: The soundtrack is an early 1990s pop hit from Cote d’Ivoire (Zoblazo by Freddie Meiway). This may be purely incidental, but also deliberate: Owusu celebrates an African pop artist, probably music his parents listened to, but also point to his accidental Pan-Africanist sensibilities without it being forced or contrived.

Owusu’s video has had more than 1 million views since it was posted in November 2013.

Then there’s the Naija Boyz, two Nigerian brothers, born in Lagos, raised in Australia and the United States. They started rapping as teenagers and one of them is a filmmaker. They produce Weird Al Yankowic-style remixes of hit songs by Soulja Boy, Beyonce (“Single Ladies”), Wiz Khalifa (“Black and Yellow”) and most recently of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball,” which in their hands become a Nigerian family melodrama about the evils of social media. In total, their four Youtube videos have together been viewed 25 million times.

One more example. This time there is a back story.

In 2013, the Lagos Commander of Nigeria’s Security and Civil Defense Corps (CORR), a paramilitary agency, appeared on a local channel, Channels TV, where the presenters asked him to tell viewers the URL of the corps’ website. The Commander replied, “My Oga at the top knows the website”. Oga is an Igbo word, the closest translation would be “Man in Charge.” Basically, my “boss.” The Yoruba also claim the word. The commander repeated: “My Oga at the top is working on the website and I don’t have them.” When the presenters insisted that he give a functioning URL address, he replied: “ww.nscdc that’s all.” Watch it here.

The interview went viral, Nigerian media mocked the commander’s ignorance of the Internet, and of course remixes turned up all over the Internet, not just from Nigeria, but also from elsewhere in the Nigerian, and African, diaspora, making an obscure Nigerian defense force corps taking on a viral content globally, not just by Nigerians, and commenting on the state of Nigeria’s bureaucracy, especially its armed forces (that would be woefully exposed one year later by Boko Haram). Here’s one example.

Finally, I would be remiss to mention blogs and websites like YNaija or Linda Ikeji, the latter whose blog feeds off the Daily Mail’s coverage of African topics and Nigerian celebrity gossip and PR stunts and reputedly earns about $25,000 a month from her website. Very few mainstream blogs care or check her site, but Africans in the diaspora, and even some of us at Africa is a Country, periodically check in at her site to sense of popular Nigerian sentiment (and the comment sections of her blog posts is a rich site.)

But how did we get from those blogs I mentioned at the outset and these media I have just summarized? And what are some developments that we should be watching closely as we make sense of the changing contours of the digital sphere as it comes to Africa.

Let’s begin with American political scientist Benjamin Page’s idea of “mediated deliberation,” which he first made in 1996, right around the time the Internet first became a mass medium. Page suggested that because it is impossible for all of us to participate in politics and public policy debates all at once, we give up that right to “professional communicators,” among which he included media of communication. When he wrote this, he was of course referring exclusively to professional journalists. (This was the time of the debut of Fox News and commercial talk radio).

Page has suggestions as to why private media can police itself and is our best hope for a democratic media. But as we know, professional communicators also run a broken system. You just have to Google “Jon Stewart” and “Crossfire” to watch how Stewart, eschew his hosts– Paul Begala and Tucker Carlsson—for their partisan hackery and their pretense that the Democracy-Republican divide represent political diversity. I’d also suggesting renting and watching Jeremy Scahill’s Oscar winning documentary “Dirty War” to get a sense of what’s wrong with mainstream media.

Since Page wrote his book Who Deliberates the media landscape has changed dramatically.

For example, we’ve seen the emergence of global news networks to supplant the hermetically sealed national media systems in places like the US and UK and that ruled news up until the end of the 1980s. Basically, we’ve seen the rapid transformation of old “media diplomacy” arms of Euro-American powers (BBC, VOA, France 24, Deutchse Welle) into global news networks, or we’ve seen the emergence of new broadcast conglomerates like first CNN (who gave us “the CNN effect”) or Al Jazeera (with its Arabic, later English and now American services).

Probably the most important factor has been technology advances. By 2010, Ethan Zuckerman (he’s at the Berkman Center and one of the founders of Globalvoicesonline.org, and author of the book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection suggested that three new categories of media producers had emerged online: new professionals, citizen newsrooms and aggregators.

How has how we get news and information about Africa been affected by these changes? I can identify a number of developments.

The first is how old mainstream media on and about the continent have responded. Among Euro-American mainstream media, we have witnessed a paradox: both the decline in foreign bureaus, but also continued reliance on foreign correspondents (the New York Times for example, employ three or four permanent correspondents to cover 54 countries on the African continent; The Guardian has an “African correspondent” working from Johannesburg). In some instances, the foreign correspondent, to stay relevant, writes not just with the Northern audience in mind, but for an online audience, that includes host country readers.

On continent: some media have responded well, especially in broadcasting (e.g. NTV in Kenya, ECNA from South Africa, Channels TV from Nigeria, who all stream live online).

Then there’s what can be referred to as the “development” complex. Probably the most visible representatives of this tendency are the American journalist, Nicholas Kristof, and groups like Invisible Children.

Thirdly, is what is loosely referred to as “Afropolitans,” middle class, mobile Africans and descendants of Africans who lives in the West, who are frustrated with the frustrated with “development” complex.

Ironically, the development complex and the Afropolitans have something in comment: they are two sides of the same coin sometimes and complement each other (often appearing at conferences together, going through the motions).

At the same time, there were sites we were close to like Paul Zeleza’s collective blog, Zeleza Post, Steve Sharra or Jeremy Weate’s Naijablog. Smart politics, African, pan-Africanist, but as blogging changed, their place in the culture changed and some of them disappeared from blogging.

Then there’s the turn to Twitter.

We are witnessing the emergence of a connected public on the continent that includes some political and policy elites.

Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, an early adopter of social media, launched his presidential run on Facebook in 2011; Jonathan’s critics also resorted to using social media, so much so that by January 2012, he had “set a world record” as the most cursed president on Facebook. In South Africa, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has made social media an essential part of its political strategy, though it has also proved to be the Achilles heel of its party leader, Helen Zille. The online dominance of Zille and the DA also reflect racial disparities (still largely skewed to the small white minority) in Internet access and use in South Africa.

But it is Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s longtime president, who best illustrates the potential and the paradox of social media: he manages to discredit himself while simultaneously representing an ideal path for political engagement in the digital age. His tweets, with their exclamation points, abbreviations, and numbers impersonating words, often resemble—in the words of one my students at the New School—language more suitable for texting among teens than for an elected official and are “akin to a beta release, a politician highly advanced in his tactical approach but with major problems built into the firmware.” Not surprisingly, Kagame has had his fair share of “twitterspats.” For example, in May 2011, Kagame took offense at a remark made by a British journalist, Ian Birrell, who had described him as “despotic and deluded.” For the next hour, Kagame responded in a series of tweets to Birrell. Some observers considered it the first time a head of state directly engaged with a journalist on Twitter.
But there are 2 or 3 other tendencies that I think are more promising:

While the actions of Kagame and other political leaders are significant for how the public sphere is changing in Africa, their impacts pale in comparison to #Kony2012, arguably the most significant event in the short history of Africa’s place in the global public sphere. Despite criticisms about the “film” and Invisible Children (including after the public meltdown of its founder), at least for a while this will remain the template for how “the global public sphere” will engage with African issues and Africans.

Mainstream journalists and commentators still attest to #Kony2012’s efficacy and usefulness. Initial criticism of #Kony2012 centered on demands for “African voices” since it was obvious that #Kony2012 was/is above all about Americans, not Uganda. It had little to say about Ugandan history or politics and as a media phenomenon, it provided more insight into American mass culture.

Mainstream media became obsessed with finding out what “African voices” say—that is, what “authentic” Africans think about the film. While this was a useful critique, it also assumed that the authenticity of the African would make the criticism “real” and add ballast to #Kony2012’s fading truthfulness.

Western media seemed to be thunderstruck with the sudden “awareness” that if you report on something happening in Uganda (or name your country) without bothering to talk to any people from said country, you’re likely to come up with something like #Kony2012. They anxiously asked around for as many Africans as they could find to provide some kind of unchallengeable African truth. “You’re Nigerian? You’re from Sierra Leone? Oh well, close enough, you’ll do. Now tell us what to believe, and please do try to be polite and not say anything horrible about racism, especially if it might be ours.”

Obviously, the lack of African voices from the regions in which the Lord’s Resistance Army operates (or once operated) was part of the problem in this “activist” film, with its easy “to do” list of solutions aimed at those who are often mockingly described as “Facebook slacktivists.” But it is not clear how being “authentically African” makes someone a useful purveyor of opinion on the issue. Even Invisible Children has “African voices” on its staff. In fact, this was part of the filmmakers’ defense when they responded to criticisms. Africans can also draw uninformed (or purely self-interest driven) conclusions about what’s going on in the continent. So it is unclear if the “authenticity” of the Africans engaged in (or critiquing) any given “African” situation is the solution, per se. Perhaps the main takeaway from #Kony2012 is that the film will probably retain some salience—despite the widespread criticism against it and its makers—for how most people, including some Africans, will engage with sub-Saharan African issues for the time being.

More promising were the implications of #OccupyNigeria, a series of protests that brought that country to a standstill for the first two weeks of January 2012 following an announcement by President Jonathan that he would scrap a fuel subsidy that most Nigerians considered their birthright. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians streamed onto the streets to join marches and rallies. The national strike was only suspended after the government, following a deal brokered with trade unions, partially restored the subsidy. By most estimates #OccupyNigeria was the largest and most sustained short-term protest movement in any sub-Saharan African country in a long while.

Media coverage of Nigeria during #OccupyNigeria mostly focused on alleged violence associated with protesters or linked the protests to the violence of Boko Haram, which stepped up its attacks during the strike. Certain “expert” voices in the West supported the government of Jonathan, especially his finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. They quickly faced the backlash of Nigerian protesters. Cases in point: Jeffrey Sachs (who supported Jonathan and Okonjo-Iweala) and Zuckerman (who unfavorably compared the protesters to the US occupy movement). Zuckerman to his credit, backtracked from his initial thoughts.

Apart from the people on the streets in Nigeria, some of the #OccupyNigeria pressure came from activists on social media, crucially in the Nigerian Diaspora. The latter also took their protests to the streets in major Western capitals. Online activists targeted celebrities (Nollywood actors and pop singers like D’Banj) who were forced to declare their allegiance with the strike. Yet the real focus of the anger was directed toward Nigeria’s political class, especially Jonathan and Okonjo-Iweala, who were both lampooned and scoffed online. Two websites stood out: the Nigeria-based Chop Cassava (which produces video reports) and Sahara Reporters, based in New York City.

Of these, Sahara Reporters has had a larger impact. Sahara Reporters has become a media force inside Nigeria largely because it is not in Nigeria. The website’s base in New York City places Sahara Reporters “beyond the reach of the politicians and corporations that the site often reports on.” What appeals to its readers and audience is the nature of the stories it reports. As Mohamed Keita of the Committee to Protect Journalists told Al Jazeera English, Sahara Reporters provides “eye witness accounts, just raw information about sensitive issues that the press in Nigeria is too afraid to publish or report.” These include extensive coverage of a huge oil spill in the Niger Delta; revealing the corruption of a state governor who was eventually tried in a British court; and events surrounding the illness, absence from Nigeria, and eventual death of President Umaru Yar’Adua in May 2010.

Ordinary Nigerians have warmed to Sahara Reporters’ reporting and support it publicly. It has also attracted the attention of those in power. In some instances, Jonathan’s office has released media statements directly addressed to the site. In one celebrated case, Sahara Reporters’ story of thirty-two aides accompanying Nigeria’s first lady on an official trip to an African Union summit in Ethiopia resulted in the presidential spokesperson releasing a press statement aimed specifically at Sahara Reporters.

Some concerns have been raised about sensationalism in Sahara Reporters’ style of reporting and writing. However, the conspiratorial and mocking tone of Sahara Reporters’ coverage should not be surprising. The sensationalism or the partiality to sensational stories is simply a symptom of a current Nigerian reality: that people know that they are getting screwed by the political system, and that there is a “real” beyond what is visible, dominant, or apparent in mainstream Nigerian media.

What makes Sahara Reporters’ reporting “global” is not just the fact that it is transnational but also the flow and counterflow of information between New York City, Lagos, and elsewhere in Nigeria. There’s also the reciprocity between Sahara Reporters’ editors, audience, contributors, and sources, as well as its targets.

Another example of this kind of media space is Nyasatimes. While they don’t have the same record of investigations as Sahara Reporters, they play the same function as a forum for Malawians frustrated by local media.

Then there’s the proliferation of Youtube channels and websites like the ones I mentioned at the outset.

Finally, there are the media actions of figures like the Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina. And the events around his coming out as a gay man which represents an interesting moment for African digital culture.

On January 18th, on a Saturday afternoon, Binyavanga published an essay “I Am a Homosexual, Mum,” online.  This coincided with his 43rd birthday. Calling it the “lost chapter” of his 2011 memoir,  One Day I Will Write About This Place, the essay, according to The Guardian “… cuts back and forth between different ages, as well as real and imagined memories.” As we know he never told his mother about him coming out, for example. The essay went viral.

Crucially, the essay was first posted on two blogs: Chimurenga and, of course, Africa is a Country.

(A documentary (posted in 6 parts on Youtube), featuring Binyavanga discussing his revelation and issues around sex and identity in conversation with friends, was released a few days later.)

But it was the essay that grabbed the attention.

In an interview with NPR, a few days later, Binyavanga explained why he,had made the announcement the way he did:

I’m a writer, and I’m an imaginative person. And I think I kind of had a feeling, having been in the media before, that the media kind of deals in sort of, you know, nice things, but bullet points, you know. ‘In the heart of gay homophobia darkness in Africa Binyavanga writes …’ ‘Binyavanga explained how homophobia in Africa works’ … So it was very important to me that first … I didn’t want this story published in The New Yorker or in some magazine abroad or anything. I wanted to put it out for people to share. I wanted to generate a conversation among Africans. I wanted to put up a documentary the day before – just talk around the issues in a certain way.

Basically, imagine for a moment, if Africa is a Country and Chimurenga didn’t exist, what would Binyavanga have done? He would have had go to the New Yorker and the debate as he pointed one in which, as he points out, the headlines would have been: ‘In the heart of gay homophobia darkness in Africa …’ That dynamic is very old. If he came out first on a Western media outlet, the way it would have played into the debate is that people see you on Western media, and conclude: homosexuality is a Western thing. Western sponsored.

So just by the fact that our sites existed and were digital, meant something. It allowed Binyavanga to intervene in the way he did and come out the way he did.

It was an African platform for him to stand on as a gay man. If you look at other cases of say the two gay men were arrested in Malawi or Nigeria, the people who would assist victims or gay people would be British or other Europeans and it would be easy targets for homophobes. This time it was different.

So what Binyavanga’s experience and the other media discussed here suggest is that something more interesting and fluid is happening. It also suggest that we should think more about Africans as audiences, rather than as receivers of aid.

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