The first time Rwandans went to polls in post-Genocide era, Facebook wasn’t yet founded. Twitter wasn’t in the tech hub. WhatsApp was not even a dream yet. Instagram... That was 2003.
By 2010 presidential election, Facebook had taken root in the country and Twitter was no longer something only geeks could brag about. However, the immense potential of social media as a tool of social marketing was still a bit of a virgin concept.
Internet absorption was also still low.
But this is 2017. A digital era. Smartphones are increasingly accessible, putting the digital world on the palm of many an internet user. Added to social media is the blogsphere and its influence.
Today, many youngsters have turned into netizens because their lifestyle—and often livelihood—revolves around the internet.
Social media is no longer just a fad, but also the new conventional tool of communication. A government initiative in early 2011 encouraged all top government officials to adopt the use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which has seen many leaders today, championed by President Kagame himself, frequently use social media platforms to engage the public.
But the presidential electioneering provides a whole lot of a different ball game. From the excitement that comes with electioneering to social media users trying to be experts, down to mudslinging and other ways of decampaigning candidates, how can presidential candidates leverage its potential for their benefit?
Allan Brian Ssenyonga, a social media enthusiast, said social media is important in spreading messages, especially to young people but also older ones since almost everyone nowadays has access to the internet and spends time on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram.
The Minister for Youth and ICT, Jean Philbert Nsengimana, expects the majority of the youth to follow the electioneering process, including much of the debates, and be informed, through social media.
“Social media can host educative, informative and entraining messages, which are also part of the campaigns. But traditional media also will work. The most important thing is people gathering information among themselves and sharing them with a wider audicence,” Nsengimana said.
According to the National Electoral Commission, the youth constitute as many as 45 per cent of the total voters. Add the Diaspora community to this and the ‘social media constituency’ becomes a big percentage worthy of attention.
The 2013 Rwanda Media Barometer, published by Rwanda Governance Board, showed that radio broadcast was the most important channel (95.5 per cent) through which ordinary people receive information, followed by community meetings, Umuganda, and churches (59.2 per cent), while social media (9.4 per cent) was still low.
These figures, coming out four years ago, were before Rwanda had scaled up effort toward a technology-driven economy. Internet penetration has since grown almost threefold.
According to Internet World Stats, Rwanda had 3,216,080 internet users as of June 2016 (26.4 per cent of the population).
Although traditional media still lead social media in penetration, internet-based communication have proven timelier. By the time radios, televisions and newspapers relay a message, the internet will have already had its fill with it.
Minister Nsengimana observed that, although social media has not reached the level of being able to compete against communal gathering or the radio and TV in the Rwandan context, its penetration in urban centres and the Diaspora, as well as among the youth, such as students in colleges, will make it a good platform for reaching out to the electorate.
Digital media experts say social media allows candidates and political parties to reach a wide range of audience within a short time. The posting of videos, live coverage as well as pictures have their own way to influence voters. In electioneering world over, one of the most important aspects of the politics is in the crowd.
Candidates are known to position their social media teams to publish their most outstanding photos for the social media constituents to be swayed by their followers.
Frank Habineza, a presidential candidate, said his Democratic Green Party of Rwanda has already put in place a strong social media team that will ensure that their manifesto gets the reach they target.
However, Ssenyonga said there are challenges.
“The fact that mobile data costs are still high means content like videos may not be viewed by as many people as intended. The other challenge is that most users are in urban areas so you may end up leaving out those in the rural areas, yet they are the majority voters,” Ssenyonga said.
This means candidates have to be cognisant of the internet-challenged constituents so that as they design campaign messages targeting the social media audiences, and have another way to reach out to those who miss out. This could mean designing different messages for different audiences.
Christopher Kayumba, a lecturer at University of Rwanda, however, cautions that social media should be used with ‘care’ as some messages might backfire while supporters might abuse the platform.
“Rwandans should express their point of view in a polite way, not inciting hatred under the social media cover. The main function of social media in this election period is that it will help political parties and candidates gauge their credentials. By following social media, they will know what society thinks about them,” Kayumba said.
But MP Jean Marie Vienne Gatabazi has a different view on how negative messages can be handled. The world, the legislator says, is now for freedom of speech, and negative messages to decampaign a candidate should be tolerated.
“If people say untruthful and probably negative things such as mudslinging, candidates should counter them with the truth,” the MP said.
Campaigns for the August 3 and 4 presidential election start on Friday and run for 19 days. The Diaspora community go to polls on August 3 before citizens in the country make their choice through universal adult suffrage the following day.