If Facebook and Twitter were countries, they would be among the most populous nations. With a combined user base of close to 2 billion, it wasn't going to be long before politicians sat up and took notice.
By 2004, businesses had already joined the social media bandwagon and were cashing in big time. However, the full impact of social media on politics wasn't felt until Barack Obama's prolific social media campaign in the 2008 US elections. The election was dubbed the "Facebook Election" and saw Obama bag 70% of the youth vote (under 25 years). By January 2014, @BarackObama on Twitter had over 41 million followers, the third highest in the world, and was growing at a rate of 14,000 new followers daily.
In Africa, there are over 50 million Facebook users and the growth rate is the highest in the world. The best example of social media in politics came from the Arab Spring. What began as an isolated protest by a single street vendor in Tunisia in December 2010, quickly snowballed into a countrywide protest. By January the following year, three weeks later, President Ben Ali had been forced out of power and into exile. The wave of dissent quickly engulfed much of North Africa and the Arab world. One by one, oppressive regimes were either toppled or forced to implement major changes in governance. Social media is largely credited for the overall success of the protests. During the uprising, social media was used to plan and organize protests, and share information with the rest of the world.
In Zimbabwe, stupendously popular blogger, Baba Jukwa, has used Facebook as a political tool to expose the rot in President Robert Mugabe's government. "Baba Jukwa" is a pen name; the real user is believed to be a disgruntled insider in Mugabe's government. The Facebook page now has close to 400,000 'likes' and has been viewed over a million times. His followers now fondly refer to the faceless blogger as "Zimbabwe's own Julian Assange". The blogger has so far posted several sensational exposes on; Mugabe's health, massive corruption in government, vote rigging, government sanctioned murder and assassination plots.
The 2013 general elections in Kenya are also a good example of how social media is shaping Africa's political landscape. In the run-up to the March 2013 general election, President Kenyatta came up with an aggressive social media campaign strategy targeting the youth. By the time of the election, his Facebook page had over 500,000 'likes', making it one of the most 'liked' pages in Africa.
South Africa is expected to conduct parliamentary and provincial legislature elections in mid-2014. Already, the impact of social is being felt if the social media following of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and that of new parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is anything to go by. A research study by Portland Communications found that South Africa is the most active African country on Twitter. There are currently about 1.5 million Twitter users and 5 million Facebook users. The contest to win votes from social media is on and the results will be known after the elections.
At the end of the day, with social media being increasingly used by companies for marketing and market research, it makes a lot of sense to use it for political research, shape political opinions and influence political outcomes. The examples cited thus far are only a few, but the undeniable conclusion is that social media has become a big factor in African politics and a core strategy for political actors going forward.