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Technological advancement in the 21st century has never presented a great debate about elections and social media than the year 2016.
Over 50 major elections are taking place this year across the world. About 18 in Africa, 18 in Europe, 7 in Asia, 6 in the Americas and 2 in the Oceania. These are national elections that have been administered in the past with little or no social media influence.
Who thought online platforms would have a significant meaning for individual interaction and could have so much impact on politics than ordinary information sharing?
As new as social media may be, 2016 is staring the world in its multiple coloured face, daring to be different with new experiences, gripping national leaders with fear while filling millennials with unbounded excitement. Bitter-sweet memes, propaganda videos, speculations, and impersonations will flood the online community and are destined to bethe theme songs of 2016 elections.
Learning from the “Brexit”
Witnessing the recent referendum by the British in the past week, the power of Social Media has become very obvious; the devil unveiled its beautiful scars to me.
Many of the Brits including celebrities took to social media to share their stance on whether Britain should remain in the European Union or exit. Some even published their votes on social media.
The question is: Do citizens have the right to publish their votes on social media? If this happened in Ghana, would it be consistent with the laws of the country? What happened to the convention of secrecy and mystery surrounding an individual’s choice in an election?
These questions are a little hard for a layman to answer because the laws – many of Ghana’s law for instance – were made prior to the digital age and may not include clauses that prevent citizens from posting their votes on social media platforms.
In the case of the “Brexit”, a post by the Telegraph on June 22 spelling out rules around photography and publishing in elections as covered by the 1983 Representation of the People Act states that: “No person shall, in the case of an election to which this section applies, publish before the poll is closed
any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted at the election where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted, or
any forecast as the result of the election which is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given.
The law, however, is outdated for the digital age where information is democratized. According to the Telegraph, “the Electoral Commission (EC) strongly advises against taking photographs inside the polling station, whether it is of one’s self, or ballot paper, or anything else”.
In the case of Ghana, citizens of the voting age, 18 and above are heading to the polls in November and leaders are worried at what could be the negative impact of social media on the elections.
The Inspector General of Police (IGP), John Kudalor suggested a ban on social media ahead of the polls. His outfit, as a security expert, is concerned that social media could be used to circulate wrong information posing a danger to the nation’s security during the elections. This ended up with explosions of a different school of thoughts among communities mainly on Facebook and Twitter ruling out the suggestion.
Despite the IGP’s recommendation, the United Nations, of which Ghana is a strong member, has opposed the idea of restricting social media access in Ghana ahead of the polls. The UN would “obviously be averse to any steps that will amount to restricting the democratic space particularly any step that will be taken to restrict the freedom of expression”, said Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Dr Mohammed Ibn Chambas in late May at a media briefing in Accra.
What could be the Good?
Social media is a blessing to mankind and its relevance becomes clearer as it ages with time. Social Media emergence has diversified political communication. It has created a room for citizen participation, direct communications with followers and allows individuals to voice out their opinions easily. Political campaigns get a direct connection with voters in a way that was non-existent in the past. Candidates can now get feedback on the political messages they send out instantaneously.
Another major importance of Social media in the election year adds value to communications of the Electoral Commission. Voter education has become much simpler than before. The ECcan deploy a certain percentage of its communications budget for social media engagements without breaking the bank. Social Media will compliment traditional media campaigns rolled out by the EC and reach voters who spend a great amount of time on these platforms.
The ability to reach the millennial demographic is critical to electoral campaigns and this can be achieved by the strategic use of social media since these group of humans reside on these platforms day and night.
What are the odds?
The democratic nature of social media has its positive sides and also poses negative threats to information sharing. Social Media may contribute hugely to election success, however, if poorly managed, it can create chaos for possibly peaceful elections. This is mainly because information disseminated on social media can barely be controlled. False rumours, doctored videos, memes can be made believable and twisted to suit a certain political entity while it damages the reputation of another in favour of attracting more supporters and voters.
Playing the Trump card
Knowing the negatives and the positives of a critical issue at hand, positions one to make a better decision. The world has advanced in technology and social media is a new tool for information dissemination. There is a strong need for Ghana, especially the Electoral Commission, to embrace and utilize it in all aspects of life including elections for the good of the people.
We are living with the devil who happens to be the saviour. Social Media is now integrated into our lives as a democratic people. A way forward to check the ‘evils’ of social media during the 2016 elections is to engage an ombudsman by the EC to check hate speech, posts or comments that inspire violence and have the capability of plunging the country into chaos.
It is time to dance with a positive language!