Q&A: Democracy, Technology and Young African Leaders

On Feb. 10, I took part in a three-day Facebook #YALICHAT with young African leaders – President Obama’s signature effort to invest in the next generation of African entrepreneurs, educators, activists and innovators. After introducing myself and my work in a blog post, I took questions and comments from the YALI Network centered on the role of technology in democracy. Topics included: bridging gaps between youth and politicians online; how technology can improve transparency and government accountability; taking political action; online security; election monitoring; and using technology to empower people to become more involved in politics.

You can read the whole conversation on Facebook, but I’ve highlighted a few interesting exchanges below.

Melchisedeck Muhindo: I'm Burundian, I see coming elections in my country as prepared without transparency and its issue will contain risks of non-credible results. I think like this because different categories of actors are not involved from the beginning. Political leaders from opposition claiming for many irregularities in registration procedures. For this reason technology can help through introducing biometric ID cards in order to prevent rather than once registration for voters.
Me: You raise an excellent point here. A lot of times people look at an election in terms of what transpired on election day to decide whether the process was fair. However, in order to evaluate the quality and thus legitimacy of the election you need to consider the entire election process – from the pre-election period through election day, counting/tabulating and the results. Key issues in the pre-election process include a fair voter registration process, ability of all candidates to freely campaign, fair treatment by an unbiased media and a number of other issues. Bad behavior during the pre-election period, especially disenfranchising voters by creating barriers to registration, is all too common. To counter these concerns it's important that civil society groups and political parties use established techniques to monitor these pre-election activities and file complaints through established, legal channels. Technology can play an important role in assisting with voter registration, but sometimes tech can also make things more complicated. The few attempts at biometrics for voter registration I've seen suggests that this may be one of those cases. However, a good database that is used to verify voter identity and eligibility along with a system to prevent multiple voting is very, very important. For more information on monitoring voter registration, you can refer to a manual my colleagues recently published on this subject.

Clyde A'train Shitima: My view is based specifically on Zambian democracy. Politicians have to bridge the gap between them and the people. Youths like myself are distancing themselves from political issues because we feel our thoughts and needs are not being addressed in a properly manner, hence leading to frustration and loss of interest in politics. As petty as it may seem youths chose to have no business in politics because of this reason and also status quo. Youths believe politics are uncool and therefore not good for them. What's deemed as cool among youths is social media. If politicians could have blogs, Instagrams, Facebook pages, Twitter, etc. where they can share with the public their manifestos and dreams.
Me: I think you put your finger on a very important issue – that youth are not interested in getting involved in politics because they are disillusioned with their leaders or their current situation. I think this is happening in a lot of democratic countries now, including my country, the U.S. As I mention in my blog post, I think that if the political institutions such as political parties and parliaments, as well as elected officials – don't evolve and become more modern in their ways of communicating then they will continue to drive young people away. This decrease in participation is very bad for democracy, so we need to help these institutions – as NDI tries to do in many of our programs.

Collins Mabinda: Chris Spence, how best can we use social media to ensure that Africa's middle class is empowered to take part in reforms and do not just become armchair analysts
Me: Thanks for the question, Collins Mabinda. Armchair analysts, that is a good metaphor for what others sometimes refer to as "Slactivists". One of the big concerns that many have about these new technologies, social media platforms in particular, is that because one can feel they are participating simply by "like"ing a post, or retweeting a tweet about an issue that they care about – that this might actually hinder their participation in more meaningful political activities, such as doing the hard work of actually organizing people to advocate for a cause, knock on doors to get out the vote, or other organizing activities. So to answer your question, I would urge you to use social media to encourage people in your networks to get off the couch and do some organizing, rather than just to like, retweet or other activities that don't necessarily result in any actual political activity!

Ateki Seta Caxton: How could we get our leaders to build trust and integrate ICTs in political processes? Hackers create fear of the unknown.
Me: My experience has been that the more you learn about the cyber security challenges we all face, the more manageable the situation really is. At first, as one reads about these hackers and has no understanding of what they do and how they do it – it seems overwhelming. However, as we learned more about the specifics of what they do, and how to better protect information, we discovered that this can be a manageable challenge. That isn't to say it's easy, but in this case, knowledge really has been a powerful antidote to inaction or being paralyzed by the threat when it comes to digital security. For political leaders and government officials to begin to trust technologies, I think they will need to surround themselves with people that can explain the threats, help them assess the actual risks, and then put in place plans to manage these risks as they introduce the needed technologies.

Robina Kimani: While I worked at a political party in 2012, the greatest challenge was getting feedback from the agents at the polling stations to the main office was a nightmare. My question to Chris is how can we improve in such a scenario as much as technology is concerned.
Me: Thanks for your question – this is one that we have quite a bit of experience with. Party agents monitoring an election from the polling stations can use the same techniques and technologies that election monitoring groups use to collect and transfer data. The technique we have helped groups across Africa use involves collecting information on a paper form, then using SMS to text in the responses at various points throughout the day. The SMS messages can be delivered directly into a database through what they call an SMS aggregator or a system such as Frontline SMS, and then the party officials can use the database to interpret the results and even send messages back to the party agents as needed. We have written about this process quite a bit on our blog, take a look to learn more about this.

Terrence Tendai: ...I think technology is a double-edged sword in the case of LGBT activism. On the one hand it does afford otherwise in visible communities a platform to make known their issues and challenges, and awards an opportunity to garner support. On the other hand it can make those communities vulnerable to increased violence, stigma and discrimination by revealing identities, locations and other sensitive information. As an accountability tool, however, I think technologies such as social media are effective in making governments more accountable, or even starting revolutions like the one in Egypt, as they are virtually impossible to police. I suppose my question would be whether digital activism can truly be effective if its leaders do it covertly, and if not, how can activists strike the right balance to keep themselves safe from backlash?
Me: Excellent question, Terrence Tendai. I concur that these technologies are often a double-edged sword – and that bottom up activism is essential for advocacy and to defend rights. It's important to recognize that the very same technologies that help underrepresented communities get a voice and organize themselves, are the technologies that can be used to monitor those voices, track users, block information and other nefarious things. To strike the right balance and try to minimize the risk of backlash, the first step is for activists to understand the risks that they assume when getting involved in digital activism. My team at NDI has been working with activists and communities to help them understand the risks that are introduced when these new technologies and social media platforms are used, and also some of the ways people can better protect themselves. One of the most concerning issues is that many people don't realize that these risks exist the way that you do. The first and most important point in digital security is that there are no "silver bullets," no single thing that you can do or tool that you can use to protect yourself. Working in challenging political environments where your activities may be monitored requires you to assess the specific risks that you face in your circumstance, then work out the right combination of security tools and practices that you need to use and follow to minimize the risks. However, unfortunately, in the digital age there is no such thing as truly secure communications. For more information on these challenges I'd recommend the Security in a Box toolkit from Tactical Tech.