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THE SOCIAL MEDIA REVOLUTION IN AFRICA - CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Beginning at the turn of the century and gathering force in the last decade, an information and communication technology (ICT) revolution has swept across Africa. Fueled by the expansion of wireless networks, submarine cable connections, and mobile broadband services, this revolution has afforded access to the internet and social media to the majority of Africans. The lives of Africans have been changed in many ways, including in the political sphere. In Tunisia and The Gambia, use of the internet and social media by civil society groups led to the toppling of longtime authoritarian rulers. Elsewhere, the internet and social media gave Africans tools to monitor elections and challenge corruption. Many African governments have embraced the internet as a medium for improving government services, and they have applied a light regulatory touch. Several other governments have sought to limit access to the internet, especially in times of political tension, and a few have put laws and regulations in place that would inhibit free access to ICT. Extremist groups have also exploited the internet and social media, but the new communications technologies may have harmed those groups as much as helped them. It would be in the interest of the countries of NATO to promote the use of the internet and social media by African governments and civil society. There are several areas in which Western cooperation and assistance would be particularly helpful and mutually advantageous.

BACKGROUND

ICT is an umbrella term that includes the internet, cellular telephone networks, and social-media platforms. ICT’S impact on Africa has been revolutionary. Africa’s ICT revolution was ignited by three major developments:

- Wireless Networks: In 1994, New York City had more telephone subscribers than all of Africa. Since then, landline connections in Africa have increased slowly, but mobile connections have proliferated rapidly. At the end of June 2017, there were 995.85 million mobile subscriptions in Africa. (The number of unique subscribers is considerably less because some users possess multiple devices. Nevertheless, the majority of Africa’s 1.2 billion people are now using mobile services.)

- Submarine Cables: The deployment of mobile networks was necessary but not sufficient to bring the ICT revolution to Africa. Africa also needed to be connected to the rest of the world, and that process took considerably longer. Before 2009, only 16 African coastal countries were connected to a submarine cable system. By 2016, 42 submarine cables were connected to 33 African coastal countries at 79 landing points (see Figure 1).

- Mobile Broadband Services: Africa’s ICT revolution began with the advent of basic mobile services, but has been supercharged by the rapid deployment of mobile broadband. Mobile broadband connections accounted for one-quarter of total mobile connections at the end of 2015. In 2016, those connections increased by 36 percent and were complemented by a 15-percent increase in fixed broadband connections. The rapid expansion of mobile broadband can be expected to continue.

Together, these three major developments have in Africa produced a cycle of what Professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School calls “disruptive innovation.” According to Christensen, “an innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.” Thus, in Africa, cell phones did not compete against landlines, which were unavailable to all but a few, but rather against the absence of any personal communications capability. Later, smartphones did not compete against computer-based fixed broadband connections, which were unavailable to all but a few, but against the absence of any possibility of connecting to the internet.One consultancy projects that by 2022 Africa will have 1 billion mobile broadband subscriptions. Modern communications technologies—and thereby social media—already touch, directly or indirectly, the majority of Africans.

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