How African countries, in particular Ethiopia, should engage with social media companies in a changing, multi-polar global order. What would be principal motivation, key drivers, barriers to engagement, and shared opportunities for Ethiopia engagement with social media companies in digitalisation and peace building?
The emergence or “existence” of a multi-polar world has its own positive side and drawbacks. African countries must learn from history that siding with countries with similar ideologies is neither a wise decision nor advisable. It is an outdated approach that imposes restrictions on expanding partnerships, international trade, and creating multiple alliances. African countries will benefit from having multiple alliances to foster international relations, international trade, technology transfer, and to receive friendlily support in critical situations. For instance, establishing strong diplomatic relations with countries that have veto power at the UN Security Council makes an immense contribution to deal with sanction. Therefore, African countries must prepare themselves and design strategies to empower themselves and take advantage of the multi-polar world. Digitalisation, particularly the use of social media, is among the tools that the multi-polar world has brought.
According to Statista, the number of African social media users has risen continuously, amounting to over 384 million as of 2022. Facebook is the leading social media platform in Africa in terms of market share and is closely followed by YouTube and Twitter. Similarly, internet connectivity in terms of social media penetration in Africa has grown together with the increased internet use. However despite the rapid growth, internet connectivity on the continent is lower compared to other world regions. Africa must use its advantages emanating from untapped investment opportunities and youth demographic dividend to get substantial benefit from multinational social media companies to invest in Africa in terms of infrastructure, networking, customisation, education and commercial use of social media.
The world is witnessing that the power of social media companies is drastically increasing and it’s beyond governments’ readiness to assess and control the impact on their people. As an example, we have seen some individuals who identify themselves as “activists” utilize social media platforms to incite violence. The rapid dissemination of such content to millions of users within moments can give rise to conflicts, not only in African countries but also elsewhere. For example, on October 23, 2019, in Ethiopia, a social activist named Jawar Mohammed made a distress call on social media, resulting in violent actions including death to many by his supporters or followers, leading to numerous casualties.
Especially in developing countries, the power of social media has the potential to even activate violence and mobilize large number of people. In many cases, governments have limited means to control the situation beyond resorting to shutting down the internet altogether. This is a common scenario in several African countries, including Ethiopia. Despite the ever-increasing number of social media users in Africa, social media companies often lack the necessary level of engagement and collaboration with African governments, civil society organizations (CSOs), and humanitarian institutions to effectively address conflicts that arise or are intensified through social media platforms.
Even though it is in the early stages of the process, Ethiopia is preparing for the emergence of digitalisation and everything that comes with it. For instance, the country under its Digital Strategy 2020-2025 has placed the right emphasis on unlocking the digital economy by strengthening existing infrastructure; developing enabling systems that further enhance the digital economy; facilitate digital interactions among different actors; strengthening the digital ecosystem; enhancing Tech entrepreneurship; and enhancing Digital Payments and e-commerce. These projects lay credence to Ethiopia’s readiness to welcome and use digitalisation to achieve its development goals. Digitalisation for development is reflected on a new partnership opportunity for Africa and EU with AU- EU digital cooperation for sustainable development strategic partnership summit. Similarly, the US initiative for Digital Transformation with Africa (DTA) is another partnership for Ethiopia and other African countries to mine the multi-polar world development opportunities.
Ethiopia recognizes the importance of engaging with social media companies on multiple fronts. This includes establishing robust regulatory frameworks, fostering collaborations and partnerships, ensuring data and privacy protection, implementing contextualized solutions, and promoting digital literacy. By undertaking these initiatives, the country is actively modernizing its legal system and adapting to technological advancements.
Legislations addressing issues such as hate speech, computer crimes, and electronic transactions demonstrate Ethiopia’s commitment to digitalisation and the regulation of the digital space. Opening dialogues and creating a conducive environment for partnerships with social media companies will facilitate the alignment of domestic regulations with international legislation.
The collaboration and partnerships with social media companies help address specific challenges that the country is facing, such as violence, hate speech, data, and privacy invasion. Privacy invasion in the digital space is manifested through scams and the unauthorized use of personal information to make accusations and reveal private information without authorization. These partnerships involve working together to combat these issues and may also include taking initiatives to utilize social media for social development and economic empowerment.
Ethiopian governmnet, CSO and other stakeholders collaboration with social media companies must include capacity building and digital Literacy such include training and education on digital skills, online safety and critical thinking to empower users to navigate social media in a responsible and informed manner. KEMMCOM is taking a pivotal role on entrenching digital literacy trainings in Ethiopia by making a great contribution to peace building and improving digital skills. Yet, if the training areas are widened to include commercial use of social media, it can one source of online jobs. For instance, use of digital platforms for trading goods, promoting services and products will open new job venture for youth and women.
The principal motivation for Ethiopians’ use of social media includes communication and connectivity, sharing information on various topics, including health, education, and current events. Use of social media for business and E-commerce also opened up new avenues for economic growth and job creation globally and Ethiopia must also take advantage of this. Social activism and civic engagement are other motivating factors to raising awareness on human rights, political campaigns, and social movements. According to Internews, a US organization, research reveals that in Ethiopia digital media plays a crucial role in and most users relay on it to gather information and as source of News.
Key drivers that have facilitated the adoption and use of social media in Ethiopia include majority of the population being youth created are early adopters of new technologies and social media. According to Worldometer, a website that provides real-time statistics, as of October 12, 2023, the median age in Ethiopia is 18.8. This makes the country predominantly youthful, with a population that is open to adopting new things, including technological advancements. Furthermore, the use of local languages and user interface platforms that are easy to adapt have made social media platforms more accessible to many users.
Limited internet access, underdeveloped infrastructure, digital literacy, language and content relevance, lack of shared opportunities for use of social media are some of the barriers Ethiopia shares with other African countries.
Social media engagement can also be an opportunity for Ethiopia, for education and e-Learning, and to create health awareness During the COVID-19 pandemic, social media played a crucial role in creating awareness about symptoms and prevention methods. Both government and private entities utilized frequent ads on social media platforms to disseminate information to a wide audience. This helped in educating the public and promoting responsible behavior to mitigate the spread of the virus. Ethiopia to create a better future for the youth, demands consciously designed strategies and wise decisions to determine social media companies engagement in the country. At present, we can’t avoid the global wide spread use of social media. But, citizens must acquire digital literacy on responsible and safe use of social media to protect their data and privacy. It is also important that social media is used to help you acquire the skills to use it for economic gain, education and positive social activation purposes.