Panel 6

Digital Mobilities: Representation and Self-Representation of the Digital African Citizen

Panel organisers: Hilde Arntsen, Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway and Ylva Ekström, Uppsala University, Sweden.

E-mail: Hilde.Arntsen@hioa.no

Digital online communication enables processes of change that are integral parts of narratives of mobility and movement in contemporary Africa. Social media are a ubiquitous part of society, with digital communication platforms constituting sites that enable narratives of mobility to circulate. Digital narratives understood as narratives created and re-created online can be understood as complex web of motivations, rationales and aspirations behind digital mobilities that are established through individual profiles, user communities or online debates. We investigate the role of presentation and re-presentation of the digital self in these processes of establishing narratives of global mobilities, and we argue that seeking to grasp the users’ or citizens’ perspective is essential.

Recent scholarship claims that presentation and re-presentation of self in digital communication should not be studied in isolation, but must be seen as integral parts of the larger political, cultural and societal aspects of communication. While individuals use the mobile telephones and the Internet in the search for information, news, entertainment, or to interact with others using social media, the constructed and scripted nature of the digital profiles or online narratives is often overlooked. Online it is possible to craft ones’ Facebook profiles to reflect ones’ cultural, political, or social identities, to create particular, multiple or divergent personae, and to participate in national, regional or global Twitter campaigns such as #bringbackourgirls, #Rhodesmustfall, #feesmustfall or #Metoo. Digital narratives are crafted for political or business purposes for instance through YouTube, Instagram or WhatsApp. Analysing the representation and re-presentation of self is one way of understanding these global digital narratives.

This panel seeks to critically investigate the online representation and re-presentation of the African digital citizen. Using text and image-based analyses within critical media studies, combining novel and standard methodological approaches, research presented here studies dynamic digital narratives of mobility in contemporary Africa.

Approved abstracts panel 6

1. Voice for the voiceless? Ethiopian Diaspora Influence in Homeland Politics

Author: Abel Kemal Endashaw, School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS, University of London, UK.
E-mail: 644062@soas.ac.uk

Diasporas are growing communities in the world and play an important role in contributing to the development of their country of origin and country of residence. The vast majority of literature on diaspora focuses on the financial and social contributions of the Diaspora in their country of origin - remittance and knowledge transfers. But, less is researched on the sensitive topic of diaspora politics and their transnational political engagement in their homeland politics using new forms of technology. There is also limited understanding on the role they play in shaping political debates back home. So, the aim of this paper will be to fill this gap by seeking to understand the transnational political activism among the Ethiopian diaspora and see if they have any influence in the homeland politics but also in their host countries by lobbying host governments for diplomatic support and promote their causes to get international attention.

In 2016 Ethiopia has been caught by ongoing wave of protests by two of the largest ethnic groups in the country – the Oromo’s and the Amhara’s. The main cause of the so-called Oromo protest was the Addis Ababa master plan which will see the expansion of the city of Addis in to the surrounding Oromia towns and villages. The Amhara’s later joined the protest to demonstrate a long standing territorial dispute with the neighbouring Tigray region. Soon, these two main causes of the protesters have changed and both groups started to demand more economic and political rights. The Ethiopian diaspora was following events very closely. Ethiopia has a sizable number of Diaspora population scattered around the world and these Diasporas are known to be very active participants in homeland politics. Unlike in the past, they were not only following these two protests, but they were also trying to be part of the conversation in real time with the help of new forms of communication. By doing that they have played a key role in becoming a voice for the voiceless by informing the outside world about what’s happening inside the country as there was an information gap. It’s evident by looking at the online conversation that the Ethiopian Diaspora is having during these two protests, their political participation and activism has increased. But, little is known to what extent their involvement in the homeland politics have real and tangible influence in the politics back home and if they have put pressure on the government to change courses. To this end this paper hopes to examine and understand the changing dynamics of the Ethiopian diaspora influence in their homeland politics by looking at these two protests as a starting point.

2. Conceptualising the ramifications of the exhibition, circulation, and dissemination of certain contemporary and digital African mobilities

Author: Emmanuel Balogun, Visual Ideation. MA African Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK. BA Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK.
E-mail: eb@visual-ideation.com

Questions of what the future holds for Africa and Africans are considerations that Africans and non-Africans are often reckoned with. The distant and ideal achievement of socioeconomic development for Africa has been contentiously discussed, imagined, and is often lamented by global, local Africans and Non-Africans living within and beyond the hinterlands of African life-worlds. As Congolese philosopher V-Y Mudimbe states in an anchoring work, ‘Africa as a name, as an idea, and as an object of academic discourse has been and remains fraught’, we know Africa as the contrast between ‘what it is and what it could be’. As evidenced by contemporary artists from the continent and its African diaspora (Stephen Tayo, Mowalola, Kenneth Ize and Ib Kamara), cultures of technology, namely social media, propagate new narratives of a continent and people in-flux. Through primary research and examination of cult, popular and consumer-facing image-based culture this paper will unpack the creation and life of the contemporary African image. This research seeks to interrogate the ecosystems that breed such forms of representation, with a view to conceptualise the ramifications of the exhibition, circulation, and dissemination of certain contemporary and digital African mobilities.

3. Digital Mobilities: Representation and Self-Representation of the Digital African Citizen

Authors: Hilde Arntsen, Development Studies, Oslo Metropolitan University, Oslo, Norway & Ylva Ekström, Media and Communication Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden.
E-mail: Hilde.Arntsen@oslomet.no; ylva.ekstrom@im.uu.se

Digital online communication enables processes of change that are integral parts of narratives of mobility and movement in contemporary Africa. Social media are a ubiquitous part of society, with digital communication platforms constituting sites that enable narratives of mobility to circulate. Digital narratives understood as narratives created and re-created online can be understood as complex web of motivations, rationales and aspirations behind digital mobilities that are established through individual profiles, user communities or online debates. We investigate the role of presentation and re-presentation of the digital self in these processes of establishing narratives of global mobilities, and we argue that seeking to grasp the users’ or citizens’ perspective is essential.

Recent scholarship claims that presentation and re-presentation of self in digital communication should not be studied in isolation, but must be seen as integral parts of the larger political, cultural and societal aspects of communication. While individuals use the mobile telephones and the Internet in the search for information, news, entertainment, or to interact with others using social media, the constructed and scripted nature of the digital profiles or online narratives is often overlooked. Online it is possible to craft ones’ Facebook profiles to reflect ones’ cultural, political, or social identities, to create particular, multiple or divergent personae, and to participate in national, regional or global Twitter campaigns such as #bringbackourgirls, #Rhodesmustfall, #feesmustfall or #Metoo. Digital narratives are crafted for political or business purposes for instance through YouTube, Instagram or WhatsApp. Analysing the representation and re-presentation of self is one way of understanding these global digital narratives.

This paper seeks to provide a review of the field of the emerging body of research on online representation and re-presentation in studies of dynamic digital narratives of mobility in contemporary Africa. Drawing on a wide variety of recent scholarship, we seek to assess the forefront of the field, and point to a few problematics and missing aspects that need further research.

4. Risk and Romance, Mobility and Mobile phones among young women in Cape Town

Author: Nanna Schneidermann, Aarhus University, Denmark.
E-mail: schneidermanns@gmail.com

The paper revisits work on mobile media use and romance among young women in Africa by engaging gendered space-time among poor black women in Cape Town and their use and avoidance of mobile phones. It does so based on one year of ethnographic fieldwork on the role of media in pregnancy, birth and motherhood in Cape Town.
Phones are by young women as well as their mothers seen as a dangerous device that leaves them vulnerable to the sexual desires of men and can potentially make them victims of gendered violence and other forms of crime. Yet the phone is also a site for romance, desire and positive potential for young women, as they seek out adventure, pleasure, better futures and new friends in the city. The mobile phone shapes a particular time-space where mobility in the city is closely related with risk and romance.
The paper explores these digital mobilities in three stories of romance, risk and mobile phones from black women in Cape Town, complicating the notion of digital citizenship in Africa as based on the premise that everyone uses mobile phones and that increased connectivity is always positive.

5. Reshaping Digital Narratives and the Popularization of Female Nudity as a Form of Political Protest in Africa: The Case of Cameroon and Togo

Author: Susana Yene Chimy Awasom, Faculty of Economics and Management Sciences, University of Buea, Cameroon.
E-mail: susanawasom@yahoo.com

The Arab Spring demonstrated the potency of the social media in circulating political ideas and bringing about revolutionary transformations. This paper sets out to examine the role of social media in the mobilization of women as spectacular agents of nation-wide protest movements. It explores the craft of online profiles as a channel to circulate ideas, mobilize women and synchronize their dress code and code of conduct for the mass political protests in both Cameroon and Togo. On 1 October 2017 women across the length and breadth of secessionist Anglophone Cameroon followed social media directives from cyber-media revolutionaries in the Diaspora to start staging colorful demonstrations in white-red garments suspended just above their breasts, easy to be thrown off at the opportune moment of strike action. It was a similar event in Togo where women coming under the influence of social media added their voices to ongoing street protests, calling for President President Faure Gnassingbe to quit. On 28 August 2017 the Togolese women in Togo’s capital Lome, dropped their trousers in front of police forces to provoke them, to the great amusement of fellow protesters, bystanders and journalists. The social media mobilization of women within and beyond Africa, their dress code and nudity component of demonstrations, are narratives of global mobilities that constitute the major focus of this paper. The focus on social media popularization and constructs of women nudity makes news headlines because men enjoy watching women exposing themselves in public in line with men’s (presumably heterosexual) sexual subjectivity. Beyond these nude images is the issue of women’s power to shape politics under fear of supernatural sanctions. The methodology of writing this paper includes online videos, newspaper articles, digital photographs of women demonstrating and interviews.

6. Digital manoeuvering? WhatsApp, Young Entrepreneurs and Social Change in Kenya

Authors: Hilde Arntsen, Development Studies; Oslo Metropolitan University, Oslo, Norway & Ylva Ekström, Media and Communication Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden.
E-mail: Hilde.Arntsen@oslomet.no; ylva.ekstrom@im.uu.se

Kenya has one of the “most active online communities” on the African continent, according to journalism scholar George Ogola (2015). Both adults and youth alike are employing low band-with social media such as WhatsApp as a key social organizing and communication tool.

This contribution discusses how young university students in Western Kenya make creative use of social media applications, WhatsApp in particular and other social media applications thrown in for good measure, for their everyday communication with peer groups and friends, and how they make use of the social media to create online personae for themselves and their many activities. The students combine a multiplicity of entrepreneurial activities such as establishing charities, crowd funding and media production with the more commonplace activities of chatting, study-related activities and keeping in contact with family. This contribution draws on multi-sited ethnographic material from university students in Kenya. In line with Postill & Pink (2012), we argue that “as social media practices cannot be defined as phenomena that take place exclusively online”, hence we are doing internetrelated ethnography, rather than internet ethnography. By making use of both on-site and online ethnographies among university students’ use of social media, we explore how the users engage with social media in their everyday lives and combine to create a number of social change activities online.

Taking the point of departure in our fieldwork in Kenya, our methodological approach will thus be the second focus in this contribution. After having started out as regular interviews with a select group of respondents, the study engages in online ethnography with the users now inside the WhatsApp platform, which is the favoured mode of communication for the respondents in question. Creating WhatsApp groups for our ethnographic purposes, we follow the young people online, posing questions at regular intervals and attempting to engage in group discussions online. Thus combining the insights gained through regular interviews, we move to internet-related ethnography for following up the users online. In so doing, we will argue that we manage to enhance the ethnographic scope of our material, allowing for more extended period of interchange with the users in the platform where they are constantly active.

The application of internet-related ethnography rests on the argument that mapping people’s online activities require time, but allows for increased engagement with the users. Thus exploring how young university students make creative use of the internet possibilities in a restricted social environment, we argue that the young people are creating a platform for self-realisation as well as exploring the internet as a platform for them as entrepreneurs. The social media may thus create possibilities for the young people to advocate for and bring about social change, as well as the more mundane activities of emphatic communication with peers. In more ways than one, they are competent digital maneuverers.

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