Social media conference calls for increased multi-level civic engagement

The elite in Uganda, who have more access to social media than the rest of the country, spend most of their time online venting their anger and frustration without taking real action, Dr William Tayeebwa, has said.

“Deliberations on social media must be acted upon or else they come to nothing. The activities of democracy should not just be left to the masses,” Dr Tayebwa cautioned in his keynote address at the 2015 Social Media Conference held in Kampala on Tuesday, 14 July.

The conference was organised by Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) and Centre for Media Literacy and Community Development (CEMCOD). Premised on the theme: Assessing the impact of social media on political communication and civic engagement in Uganda, the conference brought together about 150 journalists, civil society activists, politicians and policy makers.

Dr Tayeebwa said while social media and cyberspace in general offer many opportunities for civic engagement, the ultimate step should be walking the talk, like going out to vote.

His remarks were re-echoed by Mr Mathias Kamp the country representative of KAS, who noted that social media can amplify issues, but the substance of what is discussed on social media is must be created and acted on elsewhere.

Mr Julius Mucunguzi, the communications advisor to the Prime Minister of Uganda, during a panel discussion on ‘harnessing the potential of social media for enhancing citizen-state democratic engagement’, said citizens must learn to make demands online and in real life.

During a breakaway discussion on journalism and social media, Ms Lydia Namubiru, the programme officer research, data journalism and ICTs at ACME, presented findings from the organisation’s baseline study on how journalists in Uganda use new media. The study found that although the vast majority of newspaper, TVs and radio stations are online, most are passive participants and only a handful generate content specifically for online audiences.

“44% of the online (social media) accounts that ACME evaluated had not be updated on the day of analysis. 17% had not been updated in three months or more,” Ms Namubiru said.

On this basis, Mr Kamp said despite the pressure to be on social media, organisations should reflect on their purpose in engaging through these channels and whether they are appropriate for their causes.

Mr Mucunguzi, illustrated the problem of unplanned online engagement with the example of district websites, a programme that was rolled up with much fanfare several years ago.

“There are many organisations who say ‘we want a website’ but they don’t know why they need it. You can’t handover a website to a district chairperson who doesn’t have an email account,” he said.

According to the Uganda Communications Commission, about 11.9 million Ugandans are internet users. Countrywide internet penetration stands at 32%.

Although this figure looks small, in comparison with the 34 million Ugandans, Mr Vincent Bagiire, the chairperson parliamentary committee on ICTs, said it is an achievement.

“These days anyone who wants to have an impact or wants their voice or cause to be heard must engage in social media,” he noted.

Mr Mucunguzi agreed. The small number of Ugandans online, he said, should not be discounted because of the ‘ripple effect’ of social media discussions and their ability to drive debate in the mainstream media.

The daylong conference also discussed challenges of social media use and examples of best practice in using social media for civic engagement.

Harriet Anena

Harriet Anena is ACME’s Special Projects Officer hanena@acme-ug.org @ahpetite

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