In 2009 we ran our first internal research project regarding social media use in Africa in terms of civil society issues. We were surprised in a few ways by what we learned. Clients that we shared the report with were also quite surprised – all in a very good way. The objective of our research project was to attempt to understand if there were any online discussions by Sudanese around the census undertaken for the referendum on separation by southern Sudan from the north. Indeed there was. The key take-aways from this research and some subsequent projects were:
1. Tribal Identifiers: In 97% of the instances of discussions in forums, blogs and social networks, people first identified themselves by their tribe, then their country and then their views. Tribal distinctions it seems, are important in the context of online discussions around politics, sports and religion in social media in Africa. We have since found some similar traits emerging in parts of Latin America.
2. Engagement is Not Restricted to Elites: A common assumption of business management and many senior government officials is that only the elite in a developing nation use the Internet. We’ve proven this wrong with our research projects in Iraq, Haiti, Jamaica, Ghana, Benin and a number of other countries. As we’ve detailed before, non-elites or the general population use mobile phones, Internet cafes and hijacked high-speed connections. All socioeconomic levels are very active in social media and this is increasing rapidly around the world.
3. Language Usage: The most common language, even in Africa, tends to be English or French in Africa then Spanish and English in Latin America. As Africa is a plurality of languages, the dominant language is that of the former colonising country. Since there can be an incredible variance in tribal languages, English or French becomes the easiest for more people to understand.
These findings have been supported through subsequent research projects we’ve since conducted in Benin, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, DRC and South Africa. For governments engaging in Digital Diplomacy (or eDiplomacy as some call it) and companies engaged in international marketing through social media, understanding these nuances can make the difference in monitoring and also strategy development.