Looking back: Did social media curb election fraud in Zambia and other African countries?

MEST, Wednesday December 14th 2011

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Back in September we reported about how BantuWatch (on the Ushahidi platform) was used to collect crowd-sourced reports on electoral irregularities in the Zambian presidential elections. Today, we are following up on the results of the campaign and the impact this technology had.

But before that, lets take a look in the mirror on the events that lead up to the BantuWatch campaigns in Zambia. I interviewed Philip Thigo from The Kenyan NGO SODNET (who was a part of the BantuWatch team) on a shaky phone line when I managed to catch him driving from one meeting to another in Kenya.

Back in 2010 in Kenya, a small team from Ushahidi and SODNET was contemplating the elections back in 2007; what had gone so terribly wrong? Why did people violently take to the streets during the election days? Why was there all this mistrust in the electoral process? One answer is that people didn't feel like they were a part of the process. People simply felt like they had no reason to trust an electoral system that was perceived to be corrupt and politically biased.

The team realized that one solution was to use Ushahidi’s transparent platform to throw light on the allegations of election irregularities that had sparked the violence. When Kenyans voted in the referendum about the new constitution in August of 2010, SODNET, in collaboration with Ushahidi and Dutch NGO Hivos, ran a pilot project which tested the use of the platform for crowd-sourced reporting of election related problems.

How it worked in Tanzania and Uganda
A couple of months later the platform was tested again in Tanzania, followed by the presidential election in Uganda in February this year. In each of these elections SODNET representatives worked with the local electoral commission in the months leading up to the election, training them on how to use the platform and putting together a larger team of volunteers to help amplify the reports and revert to the official election observers. A part of that team is made up of trusted individuals, who are appointed to verify the reports of deviations from the proper process.

The efficiency of the response to these reports depend on the problem, if it’s a minor issue (missing ballots, late opening hours, etc.) it can be taken care of fast, if its a more complex problem like reports of violence it takes more time to verify and also to react to the problems with the help of the police. In northeastern Zambia, the region known as the copper belt, the incumbent president Rupiah Banda had a stronghold, which resulted in public unrest as reports of opposition leader Michael Sata leading the vote started coming out. In this region there is a widespread general mistrust in the electoral system, Thigo explains. People would report irregularities but there were a lot of the reports that could not be verified.

How it worked in Zambia

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Different from in Uganda and Tanzania, in Zambia there was a direct media engagement on the BantuWatch platform, where independent reporters from Zambia and other countries both submitted and monitored observations. This resulted in widespread international coverage from journalist from publications like Reuters and BBC, a welcomed compensation for the poor reporting by the Zambian state owned media sources.  The national press in Zambia was later accused of not remotely fulfilling their public service responsibilities, being unable or unwilling to sufficiently report on the election violence and reporting in a biased way on the election in general. In the middle of the election there was a media blackout and the electoral commission website was closed down. Thigo says the Zambian government even tried to block the BantuWatch site, but the team quickly worked around the problem with a proxy site. When asked how he knows it was the government that tried to close them down, he says that the government representatives are the only people that have the power to close down sites with the .zn domain name, so it couldn't have been anyone else.

Another interesting trend in the Zambia elections was that twitter was more heavily used as a channel for reporting. Before Zambia, SMS was the main channel used in Uganda, where the telecom operators, instructed by the government, blocked SMS reports to the Bantu Watch platform. The beauty of the reports submitted through a hash tag on Twitter is that its very difficult to block them, once submitted they are there to be read by the entire world, Philip Thigo says excited.

In both Uganda and Tanzania the election watch websites were blocked, but in Kenya even more unsophisticated measures were taken to quiet the initiative. Local servers were blocked and there were break-ins and sabotages on the premises of the election watch team.

One challenge Thigo sees with the Twitter reports is that on Twitter there is a lot of noise, many people use the designated hash tags even when not reporting on electoral irregularities. Ushahidi is now working on figuring out a way to filter the messages to make the channel more efficient.

As a follow-up to the Zambian election the BantuWatch team is now involved in a project where they are trying to measure the promises made by the winning party and track what is being fulfilled and what is not. The thought behind this is to keep engaging voters and citizens even after the election days.

Initiatives like BantuWatch will never be able to solve the entire problem of electoral unrest and fraud in Africa, but it can help make citizens more engaged in the process. Hopefully that engagement will create transparency and lead to democratic participation and actions, instead of the violent outbursts of frustration we have seen in nearly every election on the continent so far.

I asked what the next project for SODNET and BantuWatch is and Philip Thigo says it depends on where they get invited. This is a call to all the African governments facing elections in 2012, if you are serious about tackling fraud and fraud allegations, make sure the SODNET team gets invited to help monitor the electoral process. We sure hope we can get something in place here in Ghana before the election next year and I promise to keep you posted on how things are progressing.