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Social Media’s Role in Democratic Backsliding Across West Africa

Cameron Roberts

On January 24th, 2022 the elected government under President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré in Burkina Faso collapsed. Just before military forces captured him Kaboré took one last shot at saving democracy– he posted a tweet. Taking to his official Twitter account, Kaboré implored his country to “safeguard [its] democratic achievements.” However less than 12 hours later those democratic achievements were erased, proving 280 characters is insufficient to halt a coup d’etat.

The use of social media across Africa as a method of community organizing and political activism has been prevalent since the Arab Spring in 2011. International observers coined the uprisings at the time “ ‘Tunisia’s Twitter uprising’, ‘Egypt’s Facebook revolution’ and ‘Syria’s YouTube uprising’. Social media acted as a space to both mobilize local populations and inform the international community about what was happening inside each country's borders. Over a decade later, the proportion of social media users across Africa has increased dramatically. In Sub-Saharan Africa “one in two people [own] a smartphone and more than one in four [have] mobile internet access” which is double the proportion of internet users in 2014. In light of a recent wave of military takeovers and popular uprisings across Western Africa specifically, it becomes imperative to break down the role of social media in spurring support for anti-government forces as well as the consequences of online activism for the future of the region. The tweet sent by Kaboré may be viewed as a feeble attempt to halt a coup, but the power of social media in the region cannot be denied.

Online Resistance in West Africa

Democratically elected leaders in West African countries ranging from Chad to Burkina Faso to Gabon are often the biggest perpetrators of internet restrictions. And in the latter two, military leaders conversely restored internet access after overturning the previous standing government. Social media is one of the most prominent environments for people to express discontent with their government. In Gabon, 28% of the total population is active on social media, and over half the population is active internet users. Similar figures are evident in Burkina Faso as 21% of the population is active internet users. Even if they are not active on social media sites, large swaths of both country's populations have access to online discourse that happens on Twitter (now known as X), Facebook, WhatsApp, or Telegram. This is why leaders like Kaboré in Burkina Faso or Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon chose to cut off access. But these resistance movements do not die when taken offline–they are just given more reason to fight back—hence why many across the region, especially younger African citizens, are “welcom[ing] the coup[s].” Attempts to silence critics may seem overtly counterintuitive but Ugandan political analyst Angelo Izama explained that “It will…take time for those in power to stop using surveillance and monitoring as a means to counter criticism.” Until then, different leadership that emboldens online activism will be preferred by citizens, even if they rise to power by force.

The Role of Social Media in Recent Coups

In the past four years, there have been seven coups across West and Central Africa, and each time the military takeover is framed as a surprise attack on democracy—a crisis no one saw coming. However, social media use across these seven countries reveals a different story.

Online misinformation and anti-government campaigns can be credited with laying the groundwork for military takeovers. In Niger social media sites, especially TikTok, laid the foundation for the eventual military coup in July. Influencers and everyday Nigeriens posted videos that “falsely presented footage filmed during an attempted coup in March 2021 in Niamey as a fresh incident involving firing around the president’s residence.” These videos, despite being outdated, acted as a rallying call for anti-government groups.

In the case of Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and most West African countries that succumbed to military rule in recent years, the focus of unrest on social media is on continued French involvement in the region. When former Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum visited French President Emmanuel Macron in February “​​social media was flooded by a wave of disinformation” that fed into anti-government efforts. Other online platforms even spread a fake news story that “showed a French attack on a Nigerien military convoy and contained accusations that France’s forces were secretly working with Islamist extremists.” All of these examples from Niger paint a picture of a larger regional trend that spreads misinformation online to tap into the anti-colonial sentiments held by most citizens.

Social media also serves as a breeding ground for pro-Russian content. Since the collapse of democratically elected governments in Mali and Burkina Faso, Russia has worked to create strategic partnerships with both country’s new military leaders. In the case of Mali, its increased connection with Russia has resulted in Defense Minister Sadio Camara claiming “weapons and ammunition were gifts from Russia.” The pro-Russian angle of the military government is prevalent across social media channels as well.

But the biggest issue here is that social media posts in one country also spread doctrines across borders. Mirjam de Bruijn, Professor of Contemporary History and Anthropology of Africa at Leiden University explained “It could be an influencer from Mali who says something about the Russian ''help'' in Mali, but those posts are also followed by people in Burkina Faso, or…Niger.” The chances of transitioning back to democracy are slim to none as forces online promote autocratic partnerships and continue to slander former democratic governments for their involvement with France.

Internet access will continue to expand across Africa and more people will turn to social media to express their political opinions. Governments must be cognizant of possible consequences of what is typically viewed as a positive development. They should remain wary of internet restrictions that tend to catalyze anti-government movements while still monitoring the rise of misinformation across platforms within their country. The remaining democracies in West Africa are becoming the outliers in the region and leadership should take action now or pay the consequence of removal later.


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