Short on strategy: WhatsApp use in the Ugandan elections

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This week’s general election in Uganda concludes a unique campaign. In July 2020, the Electoral Commission announced restrictions in response to the threat posed by Covid-19 that would provide for ‘scientific’ elections – campaigning on media and online platforms rather than in-person public interaction. Officially introduced as a public health measure, these restrictions have been disproportionately applied against opposition candidates, amidst a campaign characterised by high levels of violence.

These ‘scientific’ campaigns provide an opportunity to learn more about the use of social media and messaging platforms by political parties and candidates.  Supported by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, we conducted 47 interviews with parliamentary candidates from all major parties, campaign activists and civil society representatives across eight districts in November and December 2020, to better understand how parliamentary candidates have made use of WhatsApp during their campaign.

Being present

Almost all candidates running for parliament in Uganda have created a handful of WhatsApp groups to support their campaign efforts. Smaller groups are comprised of local party activists involved in the candidate’s campaign who use it to discuss logistics – though several people expressed doubts about the platform’s security and said they did not use if for sharing sensitive information. Larger, more open groups are where candidates share content – text, audio, images and, to a lesser extent, video – with supporters about their plans for the constituency and evidence of their ongoing campaign activity. A WhatsApp group filled to its 256-member capacity in theory allows an aspirant to engage with more voters than they could at a restricted rally where the maximum is 200 people.

In some instances, candidates are personally responsible for producing and sharing this type of content, but many have campaign assistants or managers to produce it on their behalf. Payment for these volunteers comes in the form of mobile data and in some instances the purchase of new phones. Candidates spoke of spending around UGX30,000 ($8) per day on social media; a not inconsequential amount but still a small sum when compared to the broader cost of running for parliament in Uganda.

Aspirants agree that it is necessary to be present online but did not appear to have a specific strategy. For the most part they are creating content about their activities and election promises or providing reactions to ongoing events and sharing these into established groups, with the expectation that these group members will share more widely with other voters on WhatsApp. Specific WhatsApp, or even social media strategies designed to boost turnout, win over new voters, discredit rivals, or tally vote counts were notably absent.

Little party coordination

The bulk of social media efforts in Uganda are centred around the presidential race. Party structures, in much the same way as they do offline, do not provide much guidance or strategic advice on how to run a political campaign to a parliamentary aspirant on a platform like WhatsApp. “Much of the social media work is dependent on the creativity of volunteers and activists” according to one Forum for Democratic Change campaign agent in Kasese.

That is not to say that party WhatsApp groups do not exist. Most candidates mentioned that there were party groups run from the centre, and in some cases at the sub-region or district levels, but that these were more channels for the sharing of information – manifesto commitments and activities of the presidential candidate for example – than places for strategic discussion.

Despite their youthful base and prominence on social media, the opposition National Unity Platform, does not have a strategy for mobilising using online tools. According to one senior party official, “it’s a citizen-led movement and we give liberty to the citizens to take the lead”. Other opposition parties such as the Alliance for National Transformation and Democratic Party have invested some energy in supporting their local branches and parliamentary candidates by creating groups for aspirants to exchange information, but this support remains limited. The ruling National Resistance Movement has been making concerted efforts to shape public discourse around the elections through a network of Facebook accounts. But these were engaged in coordinate inauthentic behaviour according to a Facebook statement that accompanied their suspension – an accusation the government has denied.

Women candidates could benefit from greater support given the additional challenges they face when engaging online. Abuse, unwanted advances, and attacks on their character were regularly mentioned in the interviews conducted and reflect a wider issue with Uganda’s online environment.

A question of access

There are more Ugandans online than ever before, but there still remain significant challenges to getting online. Smartphones are expensive, network coverage is poor in rural areas and the cost of data is high. The much maligned over-the-top (OTT) tax, a daily tax of UGX200 (S0.05) introduced in July 2018 for social media users, is still a significant cost increase for the unemployed or underemployed Ugandans. Others refuse to pay it out of principle. Virtual private networks (VPNs) help to get around the tax, but are a drain on data.

Most parliamentary candidates recognised the limiting role of OTT and noted that, whilst it was not an obstacle for them, it could be for prospective recipients of their campaign messages. Candidates still see offline campaigns as integral to electoral success and SMS remains an effective way of reaching out remotely. Furthermore, in rural constituencies, aspirants estimated that perhaps only 10% of registered voters, predominantly younger members of society, even had the ability to access WhatsApp.

However, as previous research in Sierra Leone and The Gambia has highlighted, the influence of WhatsApp is not simply confined to users who have direct access. In Uganda, journalists increasingly use social media channels to report stories, while among the population WhatsApp users can relay rumours and stories they read to friends and family members.

Rallies still resonate

A major use of WhatsApp is to amplify physical campaigns online. An FDC candidate in the district of Mbarara explained that without in-person campaign activities, “we don’t have anything to share [on WhatsApp]”. The connection between online debates and offline events remains strong and points to the continued importance of grassroots interactions.

However, both spaces are increasingly constrained and controlled. It remains to be seen if the government will shut down the internet on or after 14 January, as it did in 2016 but already there are reports that the internet is slowing down and some sites that allow for the downloads of VPNs are being blocked. Uganda’s ‘scientific’ elections may well take place in an analogue environment.

Grace Natabaalo is an independent researcher.  She previously worked as a journalist at the Daily Monitor newspaper in Uganda and at the African Centre for Media Excellence. She tweets at @Natabaalo.

Lulu Jemimah is a writer, editor, and producer with over ten years of media experience. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing from The University of Oxford. She tweets at @lulujemimah and can be emailed here.

Jamie Hitchen is an independent researcher. He has previously written about WhatsApp’s role in elections in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. He tweets at @jchitchen.

Eloïse Bertrand is an Early Career Fellow at the University of Warwick, where she completed her PhD on the role of opposition parties in Burkina Faso and Uganda. Her research looks at party politics, democratisation, and institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. She tweets at @Eloise_Btd.

This research was funded by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD). The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of or endorsed by the WFD or the UK Government, who do not accept responsibility for such views or information, or for any reliance placed on them.

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