Digital movements and campaigns need to be more inclusive and reach people living in rural and underserved communities

The CTIF21, in partnership with Change.org, hosted a session on democratising advocacy in Africa at #DIYAFRICA exploring how digital platforms have amplified citizen-driven activism on the African continent. The session panelists included Doug Coltart, Legal Practitioner at Mtetwa and Nyambirai, Olga Mugyenyi Chief of Staff, and Acting Regional Director for Africa at Change.org, Nokuzola Ndwandwe, founding Director, Team Free Sanitary Pads NPC, and Tauriq Jenkins, Chairperson, AIXARRA Restorative Justice Forum.

“Covid-19 had us all on lockdown in our homes but it by no means silenced the voices of active citizens and activists. Never before have African citizens had so many channels through which to ask questions, to voice their concerns, and to demand accountability from decision-makers,” said Danai Nhando, Country Director, Change.org, who was moderating the discussion.

She added that “active citizens are the unsung heroes of how change happens on this continent and technology is the infrastructure that African citizens are using to amplify their voices”.

Change.org is the world’s largest platform for social change with over 450 million users globally. People use Change.org in various ways including starting, signing, and supporting petitions on issues that matter to their lives and their communities.

“Our mission is to empower people everywhere to create the change they want to see and our vision is where no one is powerless and creating change is part of everyday life,” said Mugyenyi.

She noted that “more than 17.6 million people across Africa have used the Change.org platform to start and support petitions, every week more than 10 000 new people join Change.org; Africa’s audience making Change.org a perpetual snapshot of what citizens on the continent are working to change at any moment”.

Leveraging technology to amplify campaigns

Even though there has been increased access to technology and the internet resulting in new ways of activism, campaigning, and collective mobilisation; many people who do not have access to the internet are unable to participate in these campaigns. Coltart asserted that it is important to be aware that internet penetration is low in many African countries; “there are still many people being left out in the cold, despite the advances in technology”, he said. He also noted that big dominant players such as authoritarian governments or big corporations can use these online spaces in a “toxic and abusive way” which can result in social media not being a safe space.

Coltart added that “we need to fight to defend those spaces and to keep them as spaces that are advancing democracy and inclusivity for ordinary people in advocacy while at the same time seeking to address the structural challenges that keep a lot of people out of those spaces”.

Jenkins said in order for technology to democratise advocacy it is necessary to combine technology and mobile action. “These are two processes that have different languages but have a tremendous amount of reach must work hand-in-hand,” said Jenkins. He agreed with Coltart that technology can be instrumental in mobilising campaigns but human rights defenders need to be technologically savvy in regards to security, meaning that while technology can be used for good, it also can be manipulated and used for harm. Jenkins explained that narratives and information can be subjected to “acute attacks of disinformation” and it is important to have a safe space where updates can happen and information factually checked.

“One of the other issues we face is data and accessibility,” said Jenkins. He questioned, “what kind of measures can we take to ensure that accessibility is present, to allow communities to be able to participate and actively engage”. Jenkins said that campaign meetings often occur on platforms that cost data and it is necessary to create spaces, such as WI-FI hubs to allow communities to participate and engage. “A campaign is led by those who have the capacity to lead the campaign and just by having that capacity and financial security to do so does not ensure the legitimacy and engagement” he noted.

Nokuzola Ndwandwe agreed with the panelists that technology can democratise technology but it has limitations. “With the digital space we are able to amplify the voices of the voiceless but people in rural areas do not have access to data, technology and are not technologically inclined and there is a need for information around the use of technology,” said Ndwandwe. She echoed Jenkins’ sentiments that the private sector can be malicious and pay bots to spread misinformation and create a narrative that silences vulnerable voices. Ndwandwe noted that there are advantages to access technology and, the digital space by allowing people to mobilise, sign petitions, and join campaigns that can raise awareness on a societal issue reaching decision-makers. Ndwandwe added that petitions can bridge the gap between leaders and community members.

How to make digital movements more inclusive? “Structural changes are needed, in terms of getting more people online which can be done through a range of mechanisms: pressuring government and corporates to lower data prices, installing higher quality internet to underserved communities and combatting fake news and bots”, said Coltart. He added that social media platforms need to account for and combat the disinformation and fake news on their platforms.

The panelists concluded that technology has the ability to create a space for campaigns, activism, and physical mobilisation but it is necessary to create spaces for people in rural and underserved areas in order for them to participate and engage in these campaigns.

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