This article examines the viability of adopting new media technologies (NMTs) as political communication tools during elections and campaign seasons in Ghana as a complement to traditional media channels of communication.
Speaking on the need for synergy between democracy and political communication, the 35th president of the United States of America John F. Kennedy once told television broadcasters that;
“The flow of ideas, the capacity to make informed choices, the ability to criticize, all of the assumptions on which political democracy rests, depend largely on communications.”
Decades later, it has become increasingly necessary to interrogate how new media technologies (NMTs) can be deployed to foster effective political communication among the citizenry, political actors and institutions owing to the multifarious potentials of the technologies in promoting e-democracy.
This is considering that NMTs and their associated social media have been deployed to accelerate development in many advanced countries. However, little is known about why and how political actors and citizens deploy these technologies for political communication on elections in sub-Sahara Africa, particularly in Ghana.
Case against and for the deployment of NMTs in elections
Notwithstanding the merits of using new media technologies, critics argue that the technologies fuel citizens’ disinterest in politics by detaching users from engaging in civic life and its corresponding duties. They assert that people spend more time online for social utility and entertainment purposes rather than for political communication purposes (Davis 1999). Nielsen (2013) for instance, argues that the fact that citizens might be online is not indicative that they are employing new media technologies for political communication.
On the other hand, there are those who argue that new media technologies may be the cure for the public’s malaise of apathy and disinterest in political processes such as elections. According to Castells (2007:250), new media technologies particularly the Web, could serve as politicians’ and citizens’ most “potent political force”. Proponents assert that new media technologies have the potential to foster political communication among citizens and between citizens and politicians thereby deepening democracy.
Tracking the NMTs trail in Africa
In a report by de Bastion, Stiltz and Herlitz (2012) on ICT penetration in Africa, Claude Migisha Kalisa disclosed how government-citizen interaction via Twitter in Rwanda was improving significantly. This follows efforts by that country’s minister of health to use Twitter as a platform to engage with medical personnel, patients and the public on how service delivery can be improved. Notable recommendations poured out from the Twitter engagement.
In a related development, Paula Akugizibwe of Uganda also reported how Uganda used SMS-based school monitoring systems ‘Edutrac’ to secure data regarding the output of primary schools across Ugandan schools. It tracked attendance of teachers, issues of sanitation, nutrition, curriculum development and funding of schools.
According to Opeyemi Adamolekum, Nigeria’s vibrant youth population also used mobile election monitoring app ReVoDa to monitor elections in 2011 and call political leaders and public office holders to account to citizens.
The Ghanaian digitization route
Speaking on the theme “Digital Governance in Emerging Markets,” at the University of Chicago, Booth Business School in the United States of America on 13th April 2019, the Vice President of Ghana Dr. Mahamadu Bawumia expatiated measures being taken by the NPP government to formalize the Ghanaian economy by deploying the potentials of technology for development (www.ghana.gov.gh).
The Vice President cited the introduction of the Ghana Card, the digital address system (that uniquely captures every 5x5 square metre of land or water in Ghana) and the interoperability of mobile money payments as well as e-business registration and the e-justice system as examples of innovative digital projects the government had implemented.
In an earlier report on application of new media technologies to elections in Ghana, Mac-Jordan Degadjor reported on how a team of bloggers, social media enthusiasts, professional photographers and volunteers used new media technologies to monitor electoral engagements among political parties and institutions, civil society organisations and the Electoral Commission before, during and after the 2012 elections in Ghana. The team monitored and documented notable events and incidents during the elections using social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube among others. It was found however that the use of social media by the Electoral Commission, political actors and institutions to communicate with citizens was inadequate.
E-political communication - re-awakening citizens and politicians
These cases suggest that the deployment of new media technologies for political communication is largely concentrated in the bosom of political actors, journalists and used to a lesser degree by the citizenry. Predominantly, journalists deploy the technologies to disseminate information to the citizenry (Ahiabenu 2013).
However, research suggests that NMTs could be used to positively influence citizens to participate in political processes, mobilise other supporters and engage on politics (Skoric 2015:63; Gil de Zuniga & Valenzuela 2011).
New media technologies particularly social media, could “support the development of a more collaborative political culture but any such process would require authenticity on the part of politicians, informed contributions from the public and a willingness to engage from both” (Michael 2013:46). Thus it is critical to interrogate how to deploy its potentials to effectively navigate e-political communication among political actors and citizens.