By Justin Castleberry
Social Media and Competing Narratives on Ebola in West Africa
The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa highlighted that the mechanisms that make social media an effective tool for raising awareness and transferring knowledge–decentralized distribution with occasional self correction, low barrier to entry, the ability to push data onto devices–also provides a vector for misinformation and rumors. The decentralized nature of not only social media, but the internet in general, make it nearly impossible for any organization to maintain control of the narrative, particularly when recommendations may not be warmly received.
West Africa ranks comparatively low for internet penetration, coupled with as much as 76% of webpage views originating on mobile devices in parts of the region. The significant variance in level of access to social media created an environment where local groups and multinational organizations could still use social media to promote awareness, but would also be in strong competition against alternative narratives from local figures and media. Engaging through social media makes organizations dependent on the community for exposure and distribution, creates opportunities for the message to be hijacked by malicious or superstitious groups or overshadowed by conventionally accessible media with a stronger local base. Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea all saw instances of efforts to raise awareness both in person and through social media hit significant roadblocks; however, the WHO and CDC Twitter campaigns and internet efforts to dispel rumors did meet with some success. These mixed results reinforce the need for organizations and governments to have a credible social media presence in place before a crisis, particularly when competition against popular but misinformed competitors can have significant consequences.
Reframing the Narrative of the Kenyan ICC case
2014 saw the ICC drop its crimes against humanity case against President Uhuru Kenyatta for the violence around the 2007 election due to difficulties in acquiring evidence and securing witnesses. A key component of Kenyatta’s response to the case was shifting the narrative from a trial focused on an individual to one where the ICC was targeting both the Presidency and the nation’s sovereignty. Kenyatta and his administration engaged with local media to promote the narrative that the case was damaging the country, drawing in additional domestic support.
The African Union (AU) has had and continues to have a contentious relationship with the ICC, which it accuses of disproportionately targeting African leaders. Recasting the case as western colonialism allowed President Kenyatta to tap into a broader base of support throughout the continent and to frame non-cooperation as resisting western imperialism. This was an effective departure from the account promoted by the ICC, which claims it was forced to drop the case because it was unable to acquire evidence from the country when it was controlled by the focus of its investigation. This narrative continues to play out with the case against Deputy President Ruto.
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