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When Social Media is Not an Option for Social Change - the DRC Example

Posted by: admin on Wed, 2011-07-27 09:29

By Caldwell Bishop, AudienceScapes

 In the past several years, aid donors and others focused on improving the lives of people in developing countries have been touting social media's ability to empower citizens to foment social change.  Two recent high-profile examples are the “Arab Spring” and popular unrest in China, where social media clearly played roles. 

But what about the many places in the world where access to social media remains very limited, if not absent altogether? The truth is that in many parts of the world, people are still largely bereft of ways to gather and share information widely and make their voices heard.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of these places, where only 4 in 100 people had access to the internet in 2008, and social media is a non-factor.  Extreme poverty and lack of electricity in both rural and urban areas have left many Congolese without access to computer and mobile devices, much less access to the internet. 

With elections tentatively scheduled for late November 2011 in the DRC, many people will thus lack access to information they need to make informed electoral choices, to help monitor possible electoral fraud, or to put public pressure on politicians through online discussions.  What's more, even if these information sources were available, high levels of illiteracy would render them impractical for many DRC citizens.

 The November elections will come amid a very challenging backdrop.  In 2006, multi-party elections were held for the first time since the middle of the 20th century, sparking hope that a more democratic Congo would see a decline in civil violence and a more rational use of the country’s plentiful but chronically plundered natural resources.  Instead, things have gotten worse since 2006, according to several knowledgeable speakers at a July 26 event – Voices from Congo: The Road Ahead – held at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  As a point of reference, they cited last year’s UNHCHR’s grim mapping report, on widespread human rights violations in Congo between 1993 and 2003, when ethnic tensions there and in neighboring Rwanda and Burundi were running rampant.  The speakers – which included Ben Affleck and Cindy McCain of the Eastern Congo Initiative, Gwen Ifill of PBS NewsHour, Scott Campbell from UNHCHR, Barrie Freeman of NDI, and several Congo activists and experts: Catherine Kathungu, Donat M’Baya, and Chouchou Namegabe Dubuisson – claimed that conditions are actually worse now than they were then.

 Local militias occupy various regions and continue to compete violently for natural resources in the rural areas.  Many villages, left with little or no protections, are under constant threat – the women from all forms of violence and the men from potential forced inscription and/or forced violence against their female kin and friends.  However, as the rule of law doesn’t hold much sway, these crimes are going unpunished and people are lacking outlets (such as social media) to publicize these atrocities and seek justice.  Now, ahead of the coming November elections, with the poor transportation system in the country, many fear to travel far beyond their villages.  As can be seen from the growing trend in the West, social media is one way to replace traditional campaigns that might require individuals in these rural villages to travel some distance to learn more about and meet the candidates.  

 Another election challenge is illiteracy.  The event’s speakers affirmed that this is a significant problem among the voting-age population.  This would be less of a challenge if video-based social media (such as YouTube) were available to the populous to learn more about their candidates; but with the lack of access to information, especially in rural areas, it was suggested that many voters don’t care who is elected.  Their main concern is electing someone who promises a focus on development and exploitation of Congo’s natural resources to improve living conditions for all Congolese - an issue that some of the speakers felt they had reason to be optimistic about.  However, with candidates such as Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former vice president who is facing a variety of war-crimes charges in The Hague, the ramifications that the lack of information could have is brought into focus.   

 Despite some optimism for change with the coming elections, if the violence and poverty that average Congolese face on a daily basis doesn’t abate, it may all have been for naught.  So the real issue here is, how do these people make their plea for help to the outside world? And how can they mobilize within their own country to become a force for a positive change?  As was seen in Egypt and Tunisia, social media can be a great way to achieve these goals, but what about Congo and the many other "socially disenfranchised" nations?   


Caldwell Bishop works with AudienceScapes and is a graduate student at The George Washington University. His research interests are in East Asia, development, economics, the environment and human rights.


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