How hashtag activism moves offline in The Gambia

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Former President Yahya Jammeh
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In The Gambia, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter are directly, and indirectly, shaping politics. The latest We Are Social’s Digital report counted 370,000 social media users in The Gambia in January 2020: equivalent to 16% of the population and a 9.6% increase from April 2019. But these figures are not indicative of the number of Gambians with access to content shared on social media or on private messenger applications such as WhatsApp due to the prominence of phone sharing and the ways in which information originating online, penetrates offline.

Recent studies from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Uganda have illustrated some of the ways in which social media content is used by, and can shape, traditional media such as radio, TV and print. This is equally the case in The Gambia where radio talks shows, in particular, allow for a crossover of online content into offline spaces. Furthermore, the 16% of Gambians who are active on social media are disproportionately influential. In urban areas these can be political activists, journalists, social commentators and religious figures; the types of people who would conventionally shape political debate across traditional media.

There are also a growing number of young Gambians who have found their voice online and whose opinions shape those of their peers. In rural areas internet penetration is reduced, but in villages where perhaps just one or two smartphones are owned, these will often be in the possession of community, religious or women leaders. Information that these influential figures choose to share from social media comes with added authority, given their standing in society.

WhatsApp is the most prominent online platform for the sharing of information in The Gambia. Most ‘forums’ (WhatsApp groups) replicate offline organisations online; built around faith networks, family structures, political allegiances or community or educational associations. Audios, in the two main languages of Wolof and Mandinka, are the most effective, pervasive and prominent way of sharing information and exchanging views. With content ranging from discussions about politics and development, to efforts to build accountability in governance, to debates about religion.

The audio format allows smartphones to act as quasi-radios in villages where education levels remain low or mobile penetration is limited. “Even those who don’t have access to smartphones and who have limited education can access the content as people will sit and play audios and videos that are in local languages in group village settings” notes Dr Ismaila Cessay, a political science lecturer at the University of The Gambia “so even if a rural village has just one phone WhatsApp can make an impact”.

Removing a dictator

The transformative impact of social media came to the fore in the democratic ouster of Yahya Jammeh in 2016. Political organisation online, working closely with offline structures and actors, was key in uniting opposition and Jammeh’s defeat at the polls. The same combination of online and offline mobilisation was then critical in ensuring that those results were respected. “Social media was very decisive in the 2016 elections” says Dr Cessay, “first, it showed Jammeh was just an ordinary person, it helped to demystify him…and second, it played a key role in mobilising people and getting them to come together”.

Facebook and WhatsApp groups were key tools for organisation, mobilisation and the sharing of information at the constituency level. Diaspora political organisers were supported by in-country allies, who worked to ensure these messages reached sympathetic ears. “We had separate WhatsApp groups for each constituency with teams of volunteers on motorbikes and cars shuttling messages to key voters and voting blocks and extracting firm commitments of support” said one local organiser who was based in Central River Region, “we were so efficient in the micro-targeting of electors that we could count the votes we were likely to get even before the first ballot was cast”.  This claim might be overselling the reality but according to Sait Matty Jaw, a lecturer at the University of The Gambia, “this kind of outreach significantly helped the ground game of the [opposition] coalition”.  

The results of the December election revealed, Adama Barrow, the opposition candidate, to be the winner. Having initially accepted the outcome, Jammeh then rejected the results and called for new elections. But Gambians, at home and abroad, refused to cede ground. #GambiaHasDecided became their rallying cry. The hashtag was used to spread messaging online to regional and international audiences – across Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. The hashtag also took on a life of its own offline, spreading onto the streets of The Gambia.

It was spray-painted on walls in downtown Serekunda, billboards with the slogan sprung up across the country as quickly as they were torn down by security agents and thousands of free t-shirts emblazoned with #GambiaHasDecided on the front were distributed and worn by Gambians. The movement emboldend citizens and gave public support to an under pressure electoral commission. It was a key part of the domestic effort, supported by the intervention of ECOWAS leaders, that ensured the December 2016 result was upheld.

Growing online organisation

Given its involvement in the 2016 vote, the usefulness of social media for political organisation and the sharing of campaign messaging and information is something that all political parties are keenly aware of.

“Social media will play a significant role in the 2021 presidential election” says Dr Ceesay, “it was already prominent in 2016, but next year there will be more Gambians online, a freer environment and more content for them to consume”.

In February 2020, Gambia Democratic Congress had 53 WhatsApp groups, each with the maximum 256 members that it used to push political messages. The United Democratic Party, Jammeh’s long-time opposition, had at least 64 groups, the People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism had 23 and President Barrow’s newly created, National People’s Party (NPP) already had 17.  The NPP can also call on the support of the President Barrow Youths for National Development (PBYFND). Officially established to give youth the chance to support the president’s activities and help him realise his agenda, it has developed a sizeable online and offline presence and has been criticised for being more like a political party than the implementation focussed support group the government claims it to be.

The Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), Jammeh’s former party has the largest – over 100 – and most sophisticated network of WhatsApp forums. It uses these groups to partially finance activities. Members are required to pay a small D100 (US$2) joining fee, and groups can be asked to contribute further to specific activities such as rallies. Two smaller WhatsApp groups made up exclusively of party executives, work on developing content and the strategies for dissemination and an APRC ‘CyberWarriors’ WhatsApp group – composed of both people in diaspora and in The Gambia – are designated with the task of defending the party on Facebook.

Election expectations

Elections are still over a year away, but WhatsApp will be a key election communication tool for all political parties in the 2021 contest. “Even though 60% of Gambians are uneducated and living in rural areas, it is still possible to reach them with voice notes in local languages if you take phones to these communities and play messages” says Ansu Singateh, president of the PDYFND. Pointing to a merging of more traditional offline campaign activities, with online approaches. In addition, allowing disapora voting for the first time remains a possibility, which would likely increase the efforts that parties make to engage voters online.

WhatsApp and Facebook have the potential to support more engaged citizen interaction with authorities and to widen the opportunity for debate and discussion. However, they can also reinforce and exacerbate pre-existing ethnic and political divisions in The Gambia. This is a challenge as the country seeks to conclude its delicate transitional justice process and hold its first post-Jammeh elections.

Idayat Hassan is the director of the Centre for Democracy and Development.

Jamie Hitchen is an independent researcher.

You can download “Forums of Debate? WhatsApp and The Gambia’s political transition” by clicking here.

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