About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, April 4, 2016

The power of social media

How Museveni got 60% of the votes and Besigye won the election

The subject of who won the February 18 election seems to be settled among supporters of Dr. Kizza Besigye. They believe their candidate won.

I have also met supporters of President Yoweri Museveni who suspect Besigye’s claims to hold some water. When your opponent sows seeds of doubt among your supporters, then you know he is either right or has won the war of public perception.

There is a lot of evidence of electoral malpractice: the delay to deliver ballot papers in many parts of Kampala where Besigye had strong support, the way the EC announced results, the deployment of police and army around Kampala, alleged ballot stuffing, 100% voter turnout at some polling stations in Museveni’s home district, etc. Nowhere are claims of electoral theft more convincing than when they make use of (and abuse) obvious facts. However, proof of electoral malpractices alone does not mean the beneficiary would have lost without them.
Electoral fraud tends to favour the strong. It only increases their margins rather than creating their victory. That is why in spite of malpractices, Museveni lost in Gulu, Amuru, Lira, Kampala, Wakiso, Kasese, Tororo, Rukungiri, etc. However, electoral malpractices undermine public faith in the electoral process.
In a charged and distrustful political climate, they provide considerable grist to the opposition mill. Even without any malpractices on polling day, Besigye and his supporters would NEVER have accepted a Museveni victory.
The malpractices only added ammunition to justify their bias. To them Besigye won long before polling day, balloting was not about selecting a winner but recognising his victory. If balloting did not confirm Besigye’s victory, then it would have proved Museveni’s theft. And how did Besigye and his supporters arrive at the conclusion that they had won before polling? By “reading the national mood.”
This despite all opinion polls (including one by Besigye’s openly declared supporter and ally, Patrick Wakida of ResearchWorld International) showing Museveni winning in the first round by anything between 51% and 70% and Besigye trailing at 28% to 32%.
Besigye’s supporters claimed that there was a “fear factor.” But how could Besigye’s supporters have the courage to brave police harassment and walk long distances to attend his rallies, openly hand him money, goats and chicken at these rallies and even throw stones at the police but fear to tell pollsters what they were doing in public? The lesson is that people create their own reality. This is a result of the power of one’s communication.

Even before the election, Besigye’s much touted strength was questionable. His party fielded parliamentary candidates in only 201 of the 290 geographical constituencies, in only 61 out of 112 positions of womenMP, 43 out of 112 district chairpersons, 536 out of 1,403 sub county chairperson positions, 1,123 candidates against NRM’s 6,663 in sub county women councilors, 2,049 candidates against NRM’s 7,303 in sub county councilor positions – the list goes on and on.

EC resultsThat FDC was confident of victory in presidential elections without grassroots infrastructure defies imagination. Besigye’s claims of electoral fraud have been greatly helped by the actions of the EC, the police, UCC and the inactions (or inadequate actions) of NRM and Museveni. I will return to how Besigye tricked the state and induced its institutions like the EC, UCC and the police to aid his narrative. But for now let me focus on the inactions (or inadequate actions) of Museveni and his NRM.

From the beginning of the campaign, the Museveni team failed to appreciate the communication revolution that has taken place in Uganda since the last elections. In 2011 when the last presidential election was held, there were 940,000 Internet subscribers in Uganda. By end of 2015, this number is estimated to have reached 7.1m driven largely by mobile Internet subscriptions that have grown by 700% from 850,000 in 2011 to 6.8 million by end of 2015.
As a result, Internet users have grown by 155% from 4.7 million about 12 million. Loosely translated, it means the addressable population for any communicator, marketer or election strategist, has grown. With a voter register of 15.3 million, Uganda is rapidly moving towards universal access to social media.
Now just think about this: an online population of 12 million people is greater than the population of Uganda’s 12 most populous districts (Wakiso, Kampala, Kibaale, Arua, Kasese, Mubende, Mukono, Hoima, Kabale, Tororo, Rakai and Iganga) who combined have a population of 10 million.

Secondly, the Uganda All Media Products Survey research released by Ipsos in 2013, on Internet usage shows that 66%Ugandans reported using the Internet (33% several times a day and additional 33% two to three times a week). In addition, 39% reported spending 1-3 hours on every visit, while 52% reported spending between 15 minutes to one hour on every visit. That was three years ago, a lot has since changed.

Ugandans are spending more time online. In the same study, 53% reported using the Internet mainly for emails, 50% on social media. Those aged 18-29 reported more social media activity than any other age group. In the study 85% reported Facebook being the most dominant social media platform used, 32%Google+ and 29% twitter. Whoever seeks to win the attention of this voter segment needs to learn online marketing. Hence management of online audiences has become a game changer for anyone seeking to sell a product, a candidate or an idea.

The 18-29 voters’ segment in urban and peri urban areas is one where Besigye has the strongest appeal.
This is why his supporters were able to take control of social media, a platform that allows multiplication and amplification of messages on unprecedented scale. Museveni supporters are largely the rural poor who participate less on social media and therefore contribute less to public discourse.

Social media allows people to built networks with virtual friends, form chat groups and attract audiences through which they can manufacture their own truth. To the prepared and/or passionate, social media allows one’s opponents to takeover his platforms and use them to their advantage.

For example, Museveni has the largest following on social media – both Twitter and Facebook. But this worked in favour of Besigye. How? Whenever Museveni posted something on his Facebook page, Besigye supporters would flood it like a swarm of bees posting criticism and grotesque insults of the president.
Museveni would have done himself better by closing down his social media. But solution. If you cannot brand yourself, your enemies will. If you close your Facebook page, your enemies will create a proxy one. As I write this article, Museveni’s pages are still dominated by content from his enemies.
Research shows that when you mix people with opposing ideas together in a forum, they tend to moderate each other. Hence most people move from their extreme views towards the center.

The reverse works when you put people with similar views into one forum. They tend to reinforce their biases and thereby moving many people to the extreme of their view. Social media has this effect. Most human beings visiting social media sites look for ideas that agree with their own.

Because social media creates virtual communities of like-minded people, it tends to reinforce shared views leading to radicalisation. We are seeing this process across Western Europe and NorthAmerica where the extremists on the right and left are the ones gaining ascendency – call it the “Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders Effect”.
This is forcing previously moderate politicians to dash to the extremes of their parties in order to remain relevant.

Today when someone posts on Twitter or Facebook a message critical of Besigye, his army of fanatics flood it with hundreds of accusations, labels and insults. This creates a feeling of mass support – but the comments will be by 100 angry people. Yet many Museveni supporters have withdrawn from social media feeling the world is against their man. Many others I meet have created proxy accounts in order to protect their real identity from being flooded with hundreds of impassioned insults and accusations.

Having chased Museveni supporters off social media, the Besigye machine created a virtual community of like-minded people who convinced themselves that they represented the whole of Uganda.
Every big Besigye rally would be posted on Facebook andWhatsapp and reproduced thousands of times, a factor that made it look like they were tens of thousands of rallies. This highly effective, self-organised campaign created an electoral psychology that Besigye had won the election even before balloting began.
NRM’s inability to stem the growth of this insurgency on social media was not due to poor appreciation of the danger but a paralysis in decision-making. Hardly anyone inside NRM understood how to respond to this challenge.

The President was advised in advance about the dangers of the opposition taking control of social media. But he found it difficult to make a quick and decisive decision because he was being bombarded with many solutions demanding money and he was unsure which was genuine.
Ultimately the Museveni campaign response was weak, the strategy adopted inadequate to meet the challenge, and the efforts scattered. Thus, Besigye’s supporters retained overwhelming control of social media.

This created a danger. Social media is susceptible to misrepresentations, forgeries and lies especially in the hands of highly impassioned and creative groups. Fake results can be announced even before closure of polling. Videos, photographs and documents showing rigging in progress can easily be manufactured to create a virtual reality of massive rigging. This would make it difficult to protect the integrity of the polling process.
The inability of the NRM and the state to effectively participate in social media conversations and debates led to an inevitable fatal error – its shutdown during polling. Many people may never know (or agree) that the primary aim of shutting down social media was to protect the integrity of the polling process.
Opposition activists had begun producing stage-managed videos and photo-shopped pictures showing massive rigging underway. There was even a hashtag on Twitter called “rigging in progress” where evidence of ballot stuffing was being manufactured using modern software to create an alternative reality.
Besigye had very little organisational infrastructure to give him victory. But social media amplified his voice and allowed easy mobilisation of his supporters.

For the first time, Museveni’s monopoly of traditional media (which he has attained through state control, intimidation, and bribery) was outcompeted by Besigye’s control of social media, which his army of fanatics attained through verbal terrorism.

On the face of it, this was democracy at work: people’s multiple voices could be heard beyond the reach of state control. But there was also a risk: such lies and forgeries undermine democracy. The actions taken to protect the integrity of the polling process achieved the exact opposite. In the eyes of many, they were seen as aimed at rigging the vote in favor of Museveni.

And this was not an entirely wrong interpretation; many in Museveni’s camp were afraid of the pro Besigye mass hysteria online, mistaking if for mass support across the country. So they sought shelter in the state in order to rig. But rigging cannot work for the weak. They lost in Kampala and Wakiso in spite of delayed delivery of ballot papers.
In many ways it was a replay of December 10, 1980. Democratic Party officials saw their candidates across Buganda and Busoga trouncing UPC candidates by margins of nine to one.
This led them to believe stories that similar trouncing was happening across the country. Rumours began circulating of DP winning constituencies where polling was still under way and where UPC has winning by large margins. This state of affairs led Adoko Nekyon to call a press conference at DP headquarters and announce DP President Paul Ssemogerere’s victory.

DP supporters flooded Kampala streets and began jubilations. To protect the integrity of the polling process, Paulo Muwanga, who was the head of the interim government, issued a proclamation stopping anyone announcing results except him.

It also legalised the extension of voting to the next day. But Muwanga’s proclamation achieved the exact opposite i.e. it convinced everyone that Muwanga was rigging the election for UPC. Besigye knows the psychology of the state in Uganda under Museveni; its penchant for use of military and police hardware to enforce its will, especially in times of crisis; its reliance on financial as opposed to ideological incentives to secure compliance with its desires, a factor that floods it with many opportunists looking for a quick financial payoff thereby crowding out the more politically grounded supporters. But these actions undermine the legitimacy even of well-intentioned state actions.

Besigye’s supporters are inspired by their candidate and genuinely see him as a redeemer seeking to bring them deliverance from the grip of a corrupt, greedy and selfish “regime”. There is nothing more valuable in politics than faith in a higher goal that seems to stand above self-interest.

Therefore in the competition for public perception, Museveni’s paid handlers could not out talk and out post Besigye’s passionate believers on social media. We may never know the truths even if there was to be a vote recount. But we can infer from FDC’s lack of organisational presence in most of the country (NRM contested 10,656 positions unopposed) that it was unlikely for Besigye to beat Museveni. However, Besigye proved that you do not need actual votes to “win.” You can use social media to create a particular mindset; especially among your passionate supporters – that you won.


No comments: