From gift to briefcase: how perverse incentives thwart participatory politics on social media networks in Africa

Ashu Nyenty writes:

Abiye Megenta, an Ethiopian expert in social media networks (SMNs) in Africa, said the power of social media to weaken and help remove autocratic regimes in Africa could be subverted if the norms of authentic participation and cooperation were eroded by perverse incentives.

Megenta said his broadly optimistic views about the democratisation effect of SMNs in African authoritarian countries had been challenged by a number of cases in which such incentives negatively affected authentic cooperative systems.  But not all of his presentation was sceptical. He argued that the scale free nature of many SMNs, relatively quick replaceability of influential actors, disruptive properties of new platforms, and intrinsic growth have all made capture by repressive governments very difficult.

Megenta gave examples of the invisible hand of perverse incentives at work. He mentioned cases of astroturf SMNs-based movements in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Sudan, and Zimbabwe that gave the impression of solid organisation and large membership even to the most seasoned observes of those countries. These movements had endangered the lives of plenty of people by calling for protests without organisation. 

He cited the curious case of an Ethiopian astroturf group that fooled western newspapers into believing that it was a strong group and the "day of rage" it called against the ruling regime would be attended by thousands of Ethiopians. The movement vanished without trace right after the anticipated protest failed to materialise.

Megenta explained the modus operandi of some popular social media network participants who use "extreme and obnoxious statements" as a way of "branding" themselves. randing is useful because it lands speaking gigs and conference invitations to the participants.

Some bloggers had been invited to various conferences on African leadership around the world, even though it was not clear whom they represent, the extent of their following, and the degree of seriousness with which they should be taken.  He cautioned organisations that want democratic change in authoritarian African countries through technology to be more circumspect and to consult broadly before choosing SMNs participants that they want to work with.

During the Q&A session, Megenta raised the unjustified expectations and unnecessary pressures on SMNs-based movements in repressive regimes after the Arab string. He expressed regret that many people think the Arab spring demonstrations were spontaneous. It took years of organisation and preparation both on and offline to create successful uprisings.  People easily conflate organisation and mobilisation, he said.

His conclusion was sombre:  having SMNs- based movements that try to bring people onto the streets in repressive countries without building organisational structure that withstands the initial government response is worse than not having such movements at all.