The role of technology in social activism is a lesson that can inspire our innovators to create change for our continent and its story.
By Nnamdi Oranye
A few weeks back, we saw devastating floods in Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa. Many people made use of Facebook’s crisis response tool, which allows individuals to mark themselves as safe. It also provides real-time updates on loved ones to their friends and family members, rather than making them wait for time-delayed news bulletins. This is a very recent example of how social media networks have adapted to connect groups of people in ways beyond just connecting with friends – and how African innovators need to be thinking.
In one of my books, Disrupting Africa, I noted how Ushahidi, based out of Kenya, is an original African innovation that has formed the backbone of this sort of technology. The Facebook tool has also been widely used in the recent terror attacks in London, the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and natural disasters in Central America.
Twitter made the hashtag integral to modern life, and campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter turned a simple metadata tag into a collective social awareness. Arguably, you can trace this connection to the mass uprising that occurred when a young 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin, was shot in America in 2012 – marches took place in New York and all over the world after people were called to take part through social media and hashtag campaigns.
It was the first time we witnessed the power of social media for activism – and it left the commercial media scratching their heads at the time.
The growing trend of using technology to mobilise groups of people is not unique to Facebook and Twitter and social media in general. Organisations such as Grass Roots Campaigns have had a long history of helping communities who have a cause to organise themselves effectively. The platform they’ve built includes face-to-face campaigns along with using technology and social media, but is also not limited to those tools.
In India, another campaigning organisation called Jhatkaa mobilised hundreds of workers that were affected by mercury exposure at Hindustan Unilever factory. Using SMS, IVR (interactive voice response), missed calls, and social media, they were able to use readily available technology for a cause that had no commercial benefit or advertising opportunities.
It intrigues me what our response in Africa is to these social concerns and the role technology plays in this. Ushahidi’s public debut was actually in Kenya’s 2007 election. Last year, it monitored the U.S. election as well – and is being used all over the world in such instances.
During last year’s university protests in South Africa, a community advocacy organisation, amandla.mobi, used mobile data to support the “Fees Must Fall” campaign. Students that were unable to join the physical protest wanted to show their solidarity but were cut off because the universities switched off the Wi-Fi in many campuses. By providing the students with mobile data, amandla.mobi supported the students’ cause in the most practical way.
The same progressive thinking that ties technology to the social activism space is what should be tapped into by innovators on the continent. It shouldn’t be limited to just social activism. Opportunities need to be made to resource the next generation in order that they can use technology in ways that we can’t yet predict.
In one of TED Talk’s most popular videos, Simon Sinek elaborates on the importance of knowing why any product, service, or organisation exists. Think of what Martin Luther King Jr achieved for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. At a time, void of social media and the Internet, a quarter of a million people (some spending days on public transport to get there) arrived in Washington to hear him speak.
As Sinek says , “Dr King wasn’t the only man in America who was a great orator; he wasn’t the only man in America who suffered in a pre-civil rights America. In fact, some of his ideas were bad. But, he had a gift. He didn’t go around telling people what needed to change in America. He went around and told people what he believed. ‘I believe, I believe, I believe,’ he told people.
“People who believed what he believed took his cause and they made it their own, and they told people about it. And some of those people created structures to get the word out. And lo and behold, 250,000 people showed up on the right day, at the right time, to hear him speak”.
It appears that King was able to inspire social activism because he believed in his ideology. Technology, products, even social movements, don’t succeed because they are inspirational or cutting-edge. They are the by-products of leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators who are inspirational. Leaders who believe in something greater than what the technology, product, or social movement may represent. These are the leaders who create products and services that change the face of society.
In Africa’s socio-political landscape, technology has a powerful role to play. I’ve established that it’s a role that will fail or succeed depending on the innovators themselves. In his 2010 article for the New Yorker, titled “Small Change”, it seems Malcolm Gladwell foresaw this particular juncture we’re faced with.
He said, “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.”
There is a clear distinction that needs to be made between “real” activists and “online” activists. Updating one’s Facebook status, commenting on an organisation’s page, retweeting a politician’s tweet, or using a hashtag are not the same as protesting in the streets or lobbying for new policies in the courts. However, there is still a significant role for technology to play with regard to social activism. As Gladwell mentions, technology is effective at increasing participation.
Social media activism, or Slacktivism, will never replace high-risk activism but it is effective in building networks between groups of people. The ties between these groups of people may be weak in the real-world but have a notable benefit.
Sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed that our acquaintances – not our friends – are our greatest source of new ideas and information. “The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation…” he says. The role of the innovator and entrepreneur is critical in developing technology that harnesses these networks of people, keeping in mind that the technology doesn’t replace the role of people in bringing about change.
African innovators have the potential to inspire the development of products and companies that change our continent, if they believe why it is important. Then, if we organise – if we get around the many why’s we have – we can create change.