The hidden costs of social media use in elections: A Ghana case study

phys.org | 11/5/2019 | Staff
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Social media is becoming increasingly central to election campaigns around the world. In the process, it is transforming politics in a number of ways. Unsurprisingly, journalists and analysts have focused on the more sensational aspects of this rise. Examples include the divisive targeted mass messaging ahead of the UK's Brexit vote in 2016, the use of WhatsApp to fuel violence in India and Myanmar, and the spread of fake news in recent elections in Brazil and the Philippines.

There has also been a great deal of focus on governments' responses. These include recent internet shut-downs in Chad, Cameroon and Zimbabwe.

Attention - Ways - Media - Election - Campaigns

What has received little attention are some of the more subtle ways in which social media is changing election campaigns. These include increased spending and the reinforcement of patron-client relationships – whereby politicians are expected to act as "patrons" and directly assist their supporters or clients—as parties add social media to more traditional campaign methods. They also include the widespread use of social media to spread misinformation. This can worsen inter-communal tensions and fuel public skepticism in politics as a "dirty game."

And as more and more political discussions take place online, there is a real danger that digital inequalities in internet access can become political inequalities in representation and voice.

Costs - Media - Campaigns - Ghana - Country

These more inconspicuous costs of social media campaigns are evident in Ghana, a country that boasts a stable party system, closely fought elections, and regular peaceful transfers of power. We recently conducted research on the role of social media in politics in the country. We found that the significance of social media is far greater than internet penetration figures alone would suggest. Politicians are investing heavily in the space and this is having a number of subversive effects.

Initially, digital technology and social media held out the promise that they would help level an...
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