#BookClub: What’s up with WhatsApp in West Africa?

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It’s refreshing to find research on digital media in African contexts that avoids framing the analysis solely around policy ‘problems’ of ‘development’, or concerns about insecurity. The work featured in a new volume on ‘WhatsApp and Everyday Life in West Africa’ (edited by Idayat Hassan and Jamie Hitchen) both manages to avoid a solutionist celebration of tech as a panacea for socio-economic challenges, or overemphasizing the impacts of ‘fake news’ and associated moral panics. The editors’ and contributors’ focus on everyday life is crucial here because it gives readers a sense of the remarkably rapid spread of this specific (group)chat app across West Africa and its multiple impacts on various communities and areas of society. Each chapter is written by researchers and tech practitioners who appear to be well-connected to the communication dynamics they study and most are based in the region.

The volume’s case studies examine WhatsApp in relation to political mobilization, trade and knowledge exchange, and the experiences of various communities of users who face different challenges and forms of marginalization. There are numerous intriguing findings across these chapters, many of which highlight the need for further research on contemporary digital evolutions – not revolutions, the editors argue – of social, economic and political relations across the continent.      

Chapter 1 on WhatsApp and political messaging in Northern Ghana (by Lynch, Saibu and Gadjanova) highlights the crucial role that the platform plays for political parties engaging with voters. No big surprise there, but what I found particularly interesting was the discussion of WhatsApp’s importance for internal party communications and discipline, especially for controlling tribal/religious rhetoric and avoiding accusations of spreading misinformation that could damage the party’s reputation. This runs in a somewhat different direction to more commonly expressed fears about social media’s role in fragmenting and polarizing digital publics, and highlights the importance of local party political context. Jaw’s chapter on the role of WhatsApp for activists organizing within the country and in the diaspora against the Jammeh regime reflects dynamics familiar globally: particularly how digital spaces can be good for organizing people against a common enemy, but less conducive to achieving consensus after a political transition has been achieved. Staying with politics, Egbunike’s nuanced discussion of digital communications in Nigeria argues that while WhatsApp has been growing in significance for electoral campaigning, the platform is not necessarily transforming the political status quo. Far from being revolutionary, WhatsApp can just as easily be used by power-holders to push favored candidates and organize effective vote buying.

Talabi’s chapter focuses on a personal case of WhatsApp use by a small business for advertising, marketing and selling products in Nigeria and beyond. The chapter hints at how reliance on platforms like WhatsApp for informal economy workers might collide with government attempts to develop citizen databases, for instance through the linking of mobile numbers to national ID numbers. Whether this could intersect with state efforts to formalize (and tax?) the informal economy would be an interesting question for further research. Pacholek (et al’s) chapter on WhatsApp support groups for health and social service providers in Cameroon shows the value of the platform for creating communities of professional practice in a challenging, conflict-affected setting. Issues relating to the sharing of unfiltered conflict images are raised here as a possible psychological harm, and further attention could be given to how WhatsApp forums might blur the professional and private identities of members who are responding to conflict as both service providers and citizens.

Olofinlua’s chapter takes a generational approach to much discussed issues of misinformation circulation on WhatsApp. Its focus on a sample of elderly Nigerian WhatsApp users provides illuminating context that could inform more grounded and context-specific efforts towards digital literacy education, as well as highlighting how the platform has inserted itself into (rather than transformed) existing social relations. Ijimakinwa and Afatakpa’s contribution on the use of WhatsApp by alumni networks linked to a Nigerian university student organization shows the practical uses of this digital ‘fellowship’ for dispersed members. These networks have presumably long been important to wider processes of social stratification, but it is interesting to reflect on how platforms like WhatsApp affect their role in wider society – who has access, and who does not? Egwu’s chapter on the Nigerian Catholic Church’s use of WhatsApp again illustrates that the digital is not radically overhauling existing social structures, but illustrates how religious media and participation can establish a daily presence in people’s lives – a process arguably accelerated by Covid restrictions and the digital responses of religious organizations.

Abubakar’s chapter on female engagement in electoral politics in northern Nigeria shows how WhatsApp helps women access unfiltered political information, take part in community discussions, and interact with politicians. A question to explore further would be whether digital opportunities for female political participation challenge conservative social norms around women’s access to public space, or rather reinforce them, with platforms acting as digital substitutes for other kinds of (offline) interactions. Finally, Allison’s chapter provides a journalistic perspective, highlighting the huge challenges that ‘traditional’ print media faces to stay relevant, achieve circulation, and compete with misinformation in athe WhatsApp age. As editor of the built-for-WhatsApp digital newspaper (The Continent), Allison provides an insider account of how the newspaper has attempted to leverage many of the communication trends highlighted in earlier chapters. Whether this publishing and distribution experiment succeeds in the long term remains to be seen. It’s a tough news market out there, but as an avid Continent reader myself, I sincerely hope it does.  

The volume’s editors recognize that social media services never represent a purely neutral platform on which users just go about their business. The design of apps, the role of proprietary algorithms, and the business strategies and data harvesting of globally powerful (and externally based) tech companies like Meta/Facebook, or Google or TikTok all have impacts on how users engage with them. Importantly, these companies see the African continent as a vital market for future user growth. The editors’ introduction notes that WhatsApp did not undertake serious outreach in West Africa to explain to users certain important changes to the platform. However, some of my research interactions with Meta in East Africa indicate that such companies are increasingly trying to engage with African stakeholders, partly because of the scrutiny that they are increasingly coming under in regard to content moderation and issues of misinformation and hate speech. A key challenge for researchers is now to connect the everyday digital experiences of users on the continent to the ways in which such companies strategize and act in these contexts. This volume provides a nuanced and valuable foundation to start that work from the ground up.

Peter Chonka (@PeteChonka, peter.chonka@kcl.ac.uk) is a Lecturer in Global Digital Cultures at King’s College London and a founding member of the Datafication and Digital Rights in East Africa research network.

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