Mobile Social Media: an affective public for digital democracy

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Social media is praised to be the largest pool of applications that enable thousands of people in the world to communicate, meet friends, share problems and ideas, and advise each other. It is also a very nice platform where the youth usually meet to discuss political matters that affect their daily lives in the constituencies, villages or regions.

Based on my ethnographic research in the Ohangwena region recently, most of the people in rural areas do not have access to social media daily, however, they all indicated that, they occasionally access social media in one way or the other once they go to towns.

However, this supports the findings of some studies which claim that despite the digital divide and network access in some countries, young people are actively using mobile internet to access social media for political and civic participation. It is concluded that social media is a good platform for youth to interact in politics.

The findings for my study additionally informed me that social media platforms are used by the youth, politicians, non-politicians, and others in the region as information sharing and debating places. It can be seen that both youth and political leaders interact with one another without any time limit on these platforms. This is a good sign of political intimacy between the citizens and government representatives as citizens feel ownership of the region. This engagement alerts the political leadership of the concerns of the youth and how the youth would like to have certain challenges addressed in the region. This is part of the direct democracy.

It is also concluded that mostly the discussions are taking place after working hours or during weekends. This shows that both youth and politicians are using their free time to access, share and discuss topical issues in the region. Additionally, this means that private time is used constructively by both the youth and political leaders for the benefit of the region to ensure that there is change and growth. With this, we can conclude that there is leisure-oriented political will among the citizens.

Another major lesson is the capitalisation of digital resources and digital literacy. Youth are using Facebook and WhatsApp to provide advice to others or to ask questions that they do not have answers to since they have a lot of professionals online.

The explored social media platforms show that, participants mainly share pictures of documents, either vacancies in the public sector from the newspapers or take pictures of the advertised posts at the constituency offices and share them. A very interesting point is the issue of some of the political leaders who are actively sharing vacancies and other important messages on these platforms. It should be noted that not all the political leaders in Namibia are on these platforms and also not all the youth are on these platforms.

While research data reveal that primarily urban and educated males have usurped these online forums, the efforts by the leaders of the forums at using their phone plans, free vouchers, sending SMS’s and calling their rural members make for a more complex narrative. It makes the case of how we need to assess digital participation not just through direct means as online participation and presence but also through indirect measures as we have seen above that involves traditional and old technologies. This pushes us to expand what constitutes as digital inclusion and helps evaluate strategies to reduce the digital divide gap through the bridging of the old and new media.

I am suggesting that political advocacy groups and lifelong learning opportunities for marginalised communities on mobile social media should be initiated and get funded by the state and private sector to ensure that digital democracy is a reality in Namibia.

* Sadrag Panduleni Shihomeka, is a citizen engagement, social media and politics researcher at the School of History, Culture and Communication, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands. He is also a Lecturer for Educational Technologies and Research at the University of Namibia, Department of Lifelong Learning and Community Education. E-mail: shihomeka@eshcc.eur.nl

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