No one can deny the power of social media and its impact on how people behave and react to current affairs. They have given millions across the globe access to produce and publish news in a way that was unfathomable just a few years ago.
We saw how social media led to the Arab Spring after a video of Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire in protests against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia went viral. What happened next is history.
We have seen how videos on social media of the killings of unarmed black people by the police in the US sparked protests and gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. Each subsequent killing led to more protests against the police, largely organised and galvanised through social media.
Right now, social media are awash with protests following the shooting by the police of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk, a French teenager of Algerian descent. Social media have been so instrumental in fueling the protests that the French government contemplated shutting them down.
In Tanzania, social media has thus far been used by citizens to express either their support or grievances towards the government’s decisions and policies. It is where many young Tanzanians are now turning to as a source of current affairs and a means of expressing their needs and desires.
Social media also serve as the place where politicians, whether they admit it or not, use as a source to gauge the mood and atmosphere of ‘the streets.’ Undoubtedly, social media’s influence is increasing, which will continue as we head towards elections in 2024 and 2025.
There are estimated 21 million internet users in Tanzania, which is over 30 per cent of the entire population, with 4.9 million people reported to use social media. This may seem minute compared to the entire population of 61.7 million people.
However, it is important to note that there are over 21 million Tanzanians between the ages of 15 to 35, the age most likely to be influenced by the internet and social media. Besides, we are not foreign to decisions and policies the government overturned thanks to pressure from social media.
No proper strategies
So, of course, social media are a big deal. Surprisingly, most political parties in Tanzania do not have a proper social media strategy to enable them to take advantage of the inventions to further their political goals.
The ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) and opposition CHADEMA party have shown thus far to lead other parties in this regard, with both parties having apps and being able to register members digitally. CCM has 835,000 followers on Twitter, followed by CHADEMA with 733,000 followers and ACT-Wazalendo with 11,000 followers.
Accounts for parties such as the Civic United Front (CUF) and NCCR-Mageuzi have about a thousand followers each. The rest have no Twitter accounts at all. Not surprisingly, CCM, CHADEMA, and ACT-Wazalendo are the only political parties with working mobile apps available.
While grassroots politics remain unavoidable, the next frontier to attract and gain votes is undoubtedly through online platforms. The internet will likely be the largest source of mobilisation of mass political support in Tanzania in the next five years.
However, the challenge I see, especially for the main political parties, is that their social media presence is pushed chiefly by individual personalities rather than any clear party strategy. There needs to be more alignment between what we see on the pages of politicians and their party pages.
If you take the United States as an example, you will see a large level of alignment between the pages of individual politicians and that of their parties. Their party pages are engaging and serve as a website for their parties outside the main websites.
Their pages are engaging, interactive and, most importantly, strategic in what they post, when, and how they post. In contrast, the pages of our political parties are usually dull, with little interaction with other social media users.
The internet and social media use is the next frontier for political engagement in Tanzania, whether politicians would like to believe so or not. Any party left behind will face a huge engagement problem with the young people they are trying to attract.
Political parties should use the internet and social media to collect real live and raw data, which they could use to implement different strategies and policy initiatives.
They should not view social media as just a platform to conduct ideological and political propaganda and as a tool to duke it out with their political opponents. The potential is unimaginable, but thus far, it is still very much untapped.
Thomas Joel Kibwana is an international relations and business development expert with ten years of experience. He is available at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter as @tkibwana. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.