The spread of #FeesMustFall
The #FeesMustFall movement is an intriguing case that highlights some of the most interesting trends on Twitter in Africa. The student-led movement started in Johannesburg as a response to the perceived rising prices of higher education in South Africa. Students at the University of Witwatersrand called for a decrease in student fees and a wage increase for university staff in cleaning and security services. The movement rapidly spread into many other universities across South Africa. The engagement of civil society was manifested through the use of the hashtag #FeesMustFall and the hashtag became the name by which the movement is known. The movement began in October 2015 and has continued to be active into 2016.
Our study found that #FeesMustFall became the second most popular hashtag in South Africa last year. While the hashtag both originated in South Africa and represented domestic events, its use spread widely throughout the continent.
The data from our study showed us that in Egypt the hashtag gained 700,000 geolocated mentions, whereas in South Africa it gained approximately 160,000. The indisputable gap in the use of this hashtag between the two countries could be a result of the population difference between Egypt and South Africa - after all, 30 million more people live in Egypt than in South Africa. Nevertheless, the disparity in numbers does not seem to be adequately explained solely by population figures. This mystery is still one that puzzles us, as Egypt and South Africa differ greatly in most aspects of their cultures.
We also noted that the use of the hashtag was also very prominent in Ghana, to an equal proportion as it was used in South Africa. While these two countries share English as a widespread language and have limited bilateral relations, there are no significant partnerships that are apparent between the two to explain their similar Twitter engagement with #FeesMustFall.
The use of social media to mobilise civil society is neither a recent nor an innovative phenomenon, yet this specific case seems to have piqued the interest of nations with no apparent connection with each other. The far-reaching use of #FeesMustFall in Egypt, South Africa and Ghana is very interesting as geographically speaking these countries are on opposite sides of the continent.
Because of this, the widespread popularity of #FeesMustFall could be seen as a symptom of a pan-African collective interest in social issues, a finding we have seen in some of our other case studies. The great benefit from this is that as the social media generation grows, it becomes less constrained by borders, languages or nationalities and brings Africans closer together. We were glad to find that the #FeesMustFall movement highlights unexpected and unpredictable relationship between African countries and their capacity to cooperate over some of the most important social issues affecting the continent.
The case of Botswana in economic indicators versus Twitter use
High and increasing levels of economic prosperity have been shown to have a direct impact on a number of key development indicators—health, quality of life, access to technology, and so on. Our ‘How Africa Tweets’ research confirms this in relation to social media use to a certain extent, but also reveals some interesting outliers.
We found that Twitter use is more prevalent in countries with the highest levels of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and lowest in countries at the bottom of the economic ladder, but there does not seem to be any broad correlation between GDP and Twitter engagement for the countries in the middle of this scale.
Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt, for example, are the most affluent African nations and also recorded the highest level of geolocated tweets. However, this is where the parallels end, as the correlation between the GDP of a country and Twitter engagement thereafter drops sharply. In this regard, Algeria and Morocco, whose GDP levels are respectively the fourth and fifth highest in Africa, demonstrate Twitter engagement levels more in line with countries further down the GDP scale. Whilst the top three nations all have larger populations, the difference is not significant enough to explain the discrepancy.
Additionally, there is no discernible trend in Twitter usage among the top 10 countries in Africa when organised by GDP growth instead. Tanzania and the Côte d’Ivoire for example, have the highest levels of Twitter engagement of the group, but they fall seventh and third in terms of economic growth so there does not appear to be any link between the two.
Botswana stands out as the most confounding case of Twitter use in relation to economic status. It is one of four countries, alongside Kenya, Ghana and Madagascar, which show unexpectedly high levels of Twitter use when compared to other countries with similar GDP. While the other three cases could reasonably be explained by population levels, Botswana ranks 42nd in population out of 54 African countries, so there must be other factors at play.
We thought Botswana’s Twitter use might make more sense if we examined it in terms of GDP per capita rather than GDP alone, but our results remained confounding. Botswana ranks fifth in terms of GDP per capita and none of the countries that rank above it demonstrate the level of engagement that would be expected if Botswana’s usage were standard for its size.
This case was one of the most interesting we found in our case studies. We originally thought that there would be a stronger correlation between economic indicators and Twitter engagement. However, our data indicates that economic factors do not consistently predict Twitter engagement and vice versa.
What remains to be explained is why Twitter engagement varies so unpredictably across African countries that show similar economic conditions. The evidence points to the conclusion that conditions on the ground are not well described by macroeconomic indicators. For instance, GDP per capita does not capture factors related to the distribution of income. In a country with high GDP per capita an average citizen may not have disposable income to spend on technology if the country is also subject to high levels of inequality. Conversely, countries with low GDP may be recipients of forms of aid that allow citizens to gain access to technology even if their own incomes would not support connectivity.
Moving forward, we must take other factors like the socio-political environment, education and literacy, and urban-rural population distributions into consideration when predicting Twitter growth. Contrary to what we originally thought, economic factors alone are not sufficient.
Twitter in the face of Ebola
When word breaks of health scares of such magnitude, the general public tend to scramble for knowledge - What is it? What causes it? How can I avoid it? In the time of the Great Plague information and advice was disseminated through word of mouth, newspapers and posters. Moving on 300 years to the HIV epidemic and the UK government, the main mode of communication was the broadcasting of TV and radio adverts.
The limitations in terms of demographic reach, speed of response and cost of these methods when compared to real time, free and interactive global platforms such as Twitter seem apparent. It is therefore expected that Ebola was at the forefront of Twitter use in Africa. And our ‘How Africa Tweets’ report revealed just that.
It was reported that first cases of Ebola were being discussed on social media before any official announcement was made by the WHO or others. And news rapidly reached even the most far flung locations of the world thanks to increasing connectivity and the popularity of online forums like Twitter.
In the worst affected countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, #ebola was in the top six most popular hashtags even towards the end of the epidemic. Interestingly, the authors of these tweets were mostly official organisations such as WHO, UN, UNDP and various local charities. These organisations recognised the ability of Twitter to cheaply and effectively reach as many people as possible in the shortest space of time to educate and inform in an effort to contain the disease.
On the flip side, there are challenges to this approach, such as having to condense crucial information to 140 characters. Although, most overcome this by adding links to the original tweet. Nevertheless, in a world of bitesize information, and on a platform that has helped drive that very trend, is this the ideal way of sharing information or will it need further adapting?
Concern has also been expressed in the media that whilst the very open and accessible nature of online forums such as Twitter allow experts to readily diffuse professional advice, it is largely powerless to prevent harmful and inaccurate information from being published and heeded.
In the case of Ebola, for example, there was talk of dubious and unsubstantiated ‘Ebola cures’ such as eating raw onion or kola nut and drinking salted water or coffee. However, in our research we found very few examples of this misleading information, so we are inclined to dismiss this as hype surrounding a very polemical topic.
Ultimately it seems, as our report indicates, that the most credible authorities in the Ebola crisis are the ones making the most noise on Twitter. Although not effective on its own, it has proven to be an invaluable communications tool in limiting widespread panic and in enabling the most informed response.
Fighting #BokoHaram one tweet at a time
One of the great aspects of social media is that it provides us all with a unique forum to anonymously exercise our freedom of speech in front of a global audience without fear of persecution from oppressive regimes. However, the open, accessible and relatively unrestricted nature of these platforms has also provided a breeding ground for terrorist organisations, such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab in Africa. It was therefore of real interest to us when further analysis of our How Africa Tweets report showed Twitter’s potential for good in this area.
The hashtag #BokoHaram, denoting the Islamic extremist group from Nigeria, was tweeted tens of thousands of times in Africa last year with more than two thirds of the tweets originating from neighbouring Cameroon.
On further analysis, we found that many of these tweets formed so-called “anti-terrorism online campaigns”.
These campaigns were at the root of momentous slogans such as #BringBackOurGirls, which went viral on Twitter worldwide. Deutsche Welle claimed that the campaign was “one of the few events on the African continent that has succeeded in causing this much of a global stir.” This hashtag also held onto its place at the top of Twitter trends for an impressive 365 days - an unfathomable amount of time considering the small life span of most campaigns. Other hashtags such as #chiobokgirls also had notable success, notching up over 145,000 geolocated mentions in Nigeria alone last year.
These two hashtags in particular were very successful because they were able to encapsulate their cause. The incorporation of these hashtags in online conversations significantly boosted participation. The ability of these ‘clicktivist’ hashtag campaigns to mobilise great swathes of influential people is clearly evident. At least it is online.
How effective the strategy is in transforming these calls to action into concrete momentum on the ground is open for debate. As it stands, the two hundred girls from Chiobok are still missing.
However, we conclude that while actions speak louder than Twitter’s trending words, the awareness these trends bring is valuable. Michelle Obama may never have brought Boko Haram to the attention of many Americans if she had not engaged with #BringBackOurGirls.
We believe that rather than dismissing Twitter as a place of talk and no action, it should instead be seen as a place that ignites important conversations - which it clearly does. Once it is trending on Twitter it is our turn to take action.
Politics and the Twitter Revolution
According to our ‘How Africa Tweets’ study, political hashtags make up 9% of all hashtags across the African continent, which was higher than in the US, UK, France and Canada. While political hashtags were used in Africa throughout the last year in relation to a multitude of events, they were particularly popular during major elections across many countries.
We then wondered, did the volume of certain hashtags correspond to the final winners of these elections?
To investigate this, we looked at three major presidential elections that took place last year in Africa: in Nigeria, Burundi and Tanzania. In Tanzania, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) - the victorious party of President Magufuli - had a clear majority of hashtags. In fact, the CCM’s slogan #hapakazitu was the fifth most popular hashtag in Tanzania for the whole year. Magufuli is an active Twitter user with over 117,000 followers and helped promote his party online. It was therefore unsurprising that this group was able to yield significant influence.
In Nigeria the political engagement on Twitter was also very high. #NigeriaDecides was the most popular political hashtag in all of Africa with one million geolocated mentions. The winning candidate, Buhari, received the most mentions on Twitter, while the losing candidate, Jonathan, received significantly fewer. Buhari’s significant Twitter presence, with 500,000 followers, was very helpful in gaining online momentum on his opponent. Jonathan on the other hand has a relatively low following of only 20,000. As in Tanzania, the voice of Twitter in Nigeria mirrored the election results perfectly.
However, Burundi was a different case. President Nkurunziza was successfully re-elected but Twitter traffic would not have predicted it. The opposition hashtag #stopnkurunziza was very popular and created a strong online base for his opposition. Indeed, under further investigation a hashtag that at first seemed positive towards the now President - #nkurunziza - was actually overwhelmingly critical and negative. So while President Nkurunziza won the vote, he has not won on Twitter.
Based off these examples, we find that Twitter holds promise in being able to predict elections, but it cannot yet. We found it was difficult to distinguish whether the political tweets were posted by a vocal minority or whether the hashtags were used to tweet in favour of or against a candidate.
But more importantly, our research has shown that Twitter is a valuable tool for engaging a population around an issue or an election. Even if its predictive abilities are low, it has proven to be an apt tool for political communication. The political discussions around these three elections were vibrant, diverse and comprehensive of many important issues.
In African countries where elections may be un-democratic, Twitter has provided a platform for open political discourse, and that ability should not be underappreciated.
Anatomy of an ISIS Twitter campaign in Africa
The terrorist organisations ISIS and Al Qaeda have been locked in a battle for legitimacy since the latter disavowed the former in February 2014. In return, ISIS has consistently attacked Al Qaeda as unfaithful to the teachings of Islam and sought to pull other extremist groups into its orbit. Having already won the allegiance of Boko Haram, ISIS has consistently tried to woo Somalia’s Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabaab. So far this campaign has produced limited success. As part of our extensive research into ‘How Africa Tweets’, there were some eye-opening revelations as to how Twitter helped turn this around.
One such flashpoint occurred on 20th March when ISIS supporters launched a Twitter campaign aimed at undercutting Al Qaeda’s support in Somalia. This episode is a strong case study of ISIS’ social media tactics and demonstrates its efforts to increase its share of the digital conversation in Africa.
The call to action began with a simple graphic posted through official ISIS channels and by known supporters, which urged followers to get behind the official campaign to expose Al Qaeda using the hashtag “#The_Jews_of_Jihad_in_Somalia”. (An ISIS cleric first levied this insult against Al Qaeda in January of last year.) Appearing on Twitter around 6pm GMT, online repositories were filled with eye-catching graphics and videos as well as proposed terminology to build the most compelling and menacing argument. Within minutes it was picked up and 725 tweets using the hashtag were posted within an hour.
This exploded to more than 2,000 tweets per hour in the subsequent few hours. In total, almost 10,000 tweets were posted within 24 hours of the campaign’s launch; a significant percentage of which using the rich content distributed in the digital toolkits.
Two points of interest arise from this campaign. Firstly, it highlights ISIS’ concerted effort to grow its share of the digital conversation in Africa. Under increasing pressure in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has shifted significant resources to establishing a base in Libya. This was explicitly announced in December 2015 when the group started talking about the “Islamic Maghreb” on Twitter and aimed threats at countries in the region, and has only increased in the months since.
Secondly, it shows how overmatched online platforms can be when confronted with such an avalanche of content. Over 75 per cent of the tweets posted over those 24 hours came in the first five hours of the call to action. Twitter takedowns eliminated just 142 of those tweets over that first day – a drop in the bucket and certainly not enough to stem the tide. This number increased as time went on, but the damage had already been done.
Moving forward, it seems likely that ISIS will continue to target Africa for its social media campaigns in an effort to attract more support and recruits. With their well oiled social media machine at full speed, it will be interesting to see how Africans and Twitter will keep them at bay.
When does Twitter noise become influential?
Africa, known as the ‘mobile continent’, has leapt from a basis of verbal communication to the possibility of 4G in under 10 years, with social media becoming key to understanding influence and the shaping of the continent’s future. Our latest 'How Africa Tweets’ study aimed to do just that by offering different perspective on how Africans use Twitter, covering topics like the environmental concerns in coastal regions, the effect of ISIS in Africa, and the use of native languages.
During this study, some surprising findings came to the fore that we did not expect.
Specifically, we found that the small island of Comoros had the highest level of Tweets Per Capita [TPC] of 0.77 across the continent. This was a surprise because it was much higher than countries like South Africa at a level of 0.29 with a population 529 times bigger. Furthermore, the content of the most popular hashtags in Comoros focused on cyber warfare, gangs and Raytheon! Portraying Comoros as a dangerous source of global cyber-attacks simply did not match our previous insights and open research - this data needed challenging.
Situated to the north west of Madagascar, the island of Comoros is best known for topping the table for women’s rights in Arab countries as well as hosting a spate of failed coups, but not a burgeoning technological revolution. For this reason, the high TPC and the prevalence of Japanese in the top hashtags was particularly strange. Various theories were entertained - a resident Japanese national, passing mariners or the preferred location for Virtual Private Networks? Unlikely. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is unaware of any national residing in the Comoros, the language does not feature prominently in any other coastal states. If you are going to hide your digital footprint, surely hide in the traffic, not in the silence. Whoever was posting these tweets had a purpose, they wanted to be heard, and we were hooked.
After further analysis the source was revealed as an individual from Japan who had lost his job. Tweeting every five minutes he had contributed over 198,000 tweets to the world and in our research period 99,000 geolocated tweets had washed ashore on the Comoros. This was more tweets then Barack Obama, Narendra Modi, David Cameron, Vladimir Putin, François Hollande and even Justin Bieber combined.
His message was consistent: multiple hashtags, including #electronicwarfare, #gangstalking and #voicetoskull, were targeted at individuals who he accused of using electronic waves to force him to lose his job. Using the space offered by the Comoros’ largely inactive Twittersphere he has told his story, a voice in the silence.
The difficulty with social media is understanding something inherently subjective – noise, often irrelevant information, to us may be signal, something of interest, to someone else. With 458 followers the direct influence this individual has is limited, but his opinions have dominated the Comoros’ Twittersphere, attracted international attention, and demonstrated that consistent noise can equate to attention – 25,266 views on his Google + profile.
But the Comoros is not the silicon valley of Africa, it does not have a population schooled in electronic warfare and Japanese cannot be considered its primary language.
Our study therefore proves that social media can both inform and mislead, and our role is to spot the implausible and challenge our initial assumptions. When it comes to data, we suggest you do too. While it's easy to mistake Twitter noise for influence, it must be avoided to fully understand the most important conversations on the platform.
Burundi in Crisis
Twitter as a powerful tool in conflicts
In April 2015, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would stand for a third term in office. Since then, he has overseen his country’s constitution change to allow him this right, managed to survive a failed coup and has been re-elected in highly contested elections. While the president managed to retain power, Burundi has descended into political, social and economic turmoil. Violent clashes rage on, international donors like the European Union have suspended aid payments and human rights groups continue to report arrests, disappearances and deaths. Given the scale of the conflict, it is not surprising that our report into ‘How Africa Tweets’ revealed that the topic was trending in Africa last year with a prevalence of a wide variety of hashtags.
It is interesting to note that the popularity of these hashtags changed throughout the year to reflect specific developments relating to the crisis. For example, the hashtags #FreeBurundi and #ChaosInBurundi were trending in May after the president’s initial announcement and the resulting protests ensued. Similarly, the hashtags #Burundi and #BurundiCoup gained popularity on Twitter after army general Godefroid Niyombare attempted a coup d’etat on 13th May. The phrase #BurundiElections started trending during the elections on 21st July, while #VigilForBurundi started to draw attention to an event in Kigali, Rwanda in December.
The conversation on Twitter has been highly political. Critics and supporters of the president alike took to the platform to voice their concern or express support. The hashtags mainly originated from Burundi (over 140,000 geolocated mentions) and its neighbouring member states of the East African Community: Rwanda (over 40,800 geolocated mentions), Kenya (over 37,500 geolocated mentions, Uganda (nearly 20,000 geolocated mentions), Tanzania (over 16,000 geolocated mentions).
High-profile Twitter accounts that got involved in the conversation included US Secretary of State John Kerry, UNICEF and the United Nations Human Rights office.
As there is currently no sign of a peaceful resolution in sight, Burundi-related hashtags are likely to continue trending well into 2016. Twitter has undoubtedly helped keep the debate alive.
As is the case across East Africa, the majority of Burundi’s population is below the age of 25. We would therefore suggest that social media will continue to play a crucial role in the political sphere - unless government intervention stalls it.
As the crisis unfolded in the spring of 2015, access to the internet by mobile phone was temporarily disabled. Strategic moves like these are not uncommon and suggest that African leaders are recognising the power and potential threat posed by social media. It will be extremely interesting to keep an eye on Burundi to see how social media impacts its future.
MGWV: Must Get Words Verified
As part of the ‘How Africa Tweets’ study, the top 5,000 hashtags used in 2015 in Africa were selected for individual analysis. We all had pre-conceived ideas of what to expect: notably, the over-exposure to One Direction, the challenges of translating Swahili to social media speak, and the tedium of the glib yet popular ‘Twitternyms’ such as #rt for re-tweets or #tbt for ‘Throw-back Thursdays’. We were not anticipating that one of these Twitternyms would become an indecipherable puzzle for us. We were not ready for #MGWV.
There were more than two million geolocated mentions of #MGWV in Africa during 2015, making it the most popular Pan-African hashtag. The number grows even larger when we include the variations such as ##mgwv and #m_g_w_v. For this reason, it seemed strange that our initial research to find out exactly what it meant and what it stood for was unfruitful.
We searched on, using the various ‘hashtag dictionaries’, and even scouring individual tweets in the hope that somebody who had used the hashtag might also have mentioned what it stood for. Still nothing. We began to come across some strange internet theories about what it might mean, such as ‘Most Girls Want Vampires’ and ‘Milli George Wendel Vanilli’, which apparently refers to a 1980s’ West German-based R&B duo. There were many others online, asking what MGWV stood for, but the answers we saw in response were sparse, inconsistent, and often implausible.
However, we did note #MGWV was usually tweeted along with other hashtags such as #teamfollowback and #anotherfollowtrain, suggesting that it had something to do with acquiring more followers. But from what type of Twitter account did they originate?
We found that there were a number of accounts actually named MGWV which would frequently tweet these ‘follower-fishing’ phrases and in their bios promised to deliver followers for a price. MGWV appeared to be an up-for-grabs brand name, but without a single stakeholder to manage the brand. Now desperate to solve the puzzle, we directly messaged some of these accounts to ask what the acronym stood for, but got no response. We resorted to using the hashtag ourselves, asking if anybody knew what it stood for. The most rational reply we received was #MoreGainsWithViews. Astonishingly, on the day that we tweeted about #MGWV, we received around 30 new followers out of the blue. The hashtag seemed to have some real magical power in the Twitter world. It seemed that this #Mysterious Gobbledygook Was Valuable.
Yet the question remains: what is the true intention behind this incredibly popular hashtag in Africa?
Is it a savvy, large scale marketing ploy to boost traffic and brand awareness? Was it orchestrated for the most past part by Twitterbots that have the technical reach to propel the cryptic hashtag to pole position? Or perhaps it is an escalation of an unwritten, reciprocal understanding between entrepreneurial individuals or fledgling businesses to facilitate the expansion of their follower base? Or does it merely demonstrate the power of trending - a random, innocuous phrase that a select few respected or well-positioned Twitter users employed, which somehow caught on with others jumping on the band wagon? And is Twitter itself in on the trick?
Considering its dominant presence, it is most likely a combination of all these factors, though we still do not know for sure.
Surprisingly, for such an otherwise transparent social media platform, the real meaning of #MGWV has perhaps proved elusive. But we cannot deny its apparent ability to infiltrate universal tweets and elevate them from the seemingly banal, attracting followers at the drop of a hat, which will undoubtedly ensure users continue to perpetuate its success in Twittersphere. But how effective the strategy is in producing targeted and sustainable results remains to be seen.
Climate Change Matters
2015 was a big year for climate change debates; the eyes of the world turned to Paris as the governments of more than 190 nations gathered to discuss a new landmark climate agreement. And so, after much negotiation, the 21st Conference of Paris, dubbed COP21, saw the birth of a new deal aimed at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.
The discussions on climate change were therefore extremely popular, and in Africa it was no different.
For although the countries of Africa have some of the lowest overall and per capita global warming emissions on the planet, they are also likely to suffer from some of the worst consequences of climate change. Africa contributes only 3.8% to the global greenhouse emissions, compared to the largest emitters like China, United States, European Union, which account for 23%, 19%, and 13% of global emissions respectively.
According to our ‘How Africa Tweets’ study, Twitter facilitated these important environmental conversations in Africa. Along with debates around #cop21, hashtags like #climatechange and #climateaction were also very popular across the continent.
What was most interesting in our findings was that these environmental discussions on Twitter were most popular in coastal and island countries like South Africa, Kenya, Madagascar and Mauritius.
It is no wonder that coastal countries in Africa are devoting more of their attention to climate change. They are more susceptible to the potentially damaging effects of sea level rise, changes in the frequency and intensity of storms, increases in precipitation, and warmer ocean temperatures.
This has had disastrous consequences for many coastal nations where every year, floods affect hundreds of thousands of people, claiming lives, displacing communities, destroying crops, livestock and marine life, and causing serious economic losses.
And so when the time came for world leaders to find a solution to these issues in Paris last year, people in African coastal cities wanted to make their voices heard. For example, the hashtag #cop21 was mentioned tens of thousands of times in Kenya and President Uhuru Kenyatta’s updates from the conference were retweeted hundreds of times. This shows us that Kenyans were very interested in knowing how the COP negotiations were going.
As world leaders and heads of state made their way home following an eventful COP21, it was clear that the debates on Twitter bolstered efforts to make offline dialogues more impactful, and Africa was a huge part of that.
As we continue to engage online on important environmental issues, we cannot overlook Twitter and Africa. As some of the populations most vulnerable to climate change, Africans will play a key role in climate solutions. And as we have seen this year around COP21, Twitter can help facilitate these solutions in Africa and bring the world together.
The historical context and #ForeignAffairs chat in Africa
Data from our most recent ‘How Africa Tweets’ study indicates that foreign affairs stories and events are discussed significantly less on Twitter in Africa than the most popular subjects like entertainment, politics and religion. In fact, of 52 African countries analysed, it only features in the top ten of two: Cape Verde and Namibia. Does this intimate a natural preoccupation with events on home soil that are more likely to effect the individual? That is what we wanted to find out.
In 2015, Africans were especially vocal around a handful of international events on Twitter, including the rise of Islamic State, various UN initiatives and events, and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign. But the most wide spread and consistent engagement occurred following the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan terror attacks in Paris.
Five main Paris-related hashtags were trending widely across Africa following these attacks. In order of popularity, these were #prayforparis, #jesuischarlie, #CharlieHebdo, #parisattacks and #bataclan. The volume of tweets around Charlie Hebdo was much greater than the November Paris attacks.
The greatest proportion of tweets came from the Senegalese, who included #charliehebdo in nearly 0.1% of their geolocated tweets for the year.
The citizens of Morocco were also very vocal; #charliehebdo was tweeted around 12,000 times there. Most likely indicative of the special historic relationship of the Maghreb with France and that a not insignificant number of Moroccans currently reside there.
An interesting case here is Togo, the only country to have recorded multiple hashtags about these events trending. The Togolese allocated 0.07% of hashtags to #parisattacks, but also actively engaged with #bataclan, #charliehebdo, and #prayforparis.
Beyond Senegal, Morocco and Togo, the countries most widely engaged were Cameroon, Congo, Tunisia and Mauritania. Notably absent in using any of these hashtags are, among others, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The connection here is clear. Those African countries most interested in foreign affairs related to France are countries with a strong French history or link.
This finding made sense and fell in line with our expectations. So next we wanted to understand how this trend looked in the rest of the world. After analysing the top hashtags in France, UK, Canada and USA, we found that Africans actually spoke more about foreign affairs than any of these other countries. In total, foreign affairs made up about 1.5% of the most popular conversations in Africa on Twitter. The closest to this porportion was in France, where 1% of their top hashtags were about foreign affairs. In the USA, Canada and UK, none of the top hashtag referenced these themes.
Overall, the data suggests that foreign affairs conversations are more popularly discussed on Twitter in Africa than in some other major countries, which could largely be due to strong historical links in Africa compared to other nations across the world.
From Charles Dickens to hashtags - how has the transformation of English affected Africa?
The most visible finding from our ‘How Africa Tweets’ study was that English is overwhelmingly the dominant language on Twitter, which will not come as a surprise to many. Africa is no exception to global trends in this regard.
A recent ‘State of Connectivity’ report by internet.org notes: “Just 10 languages account for 89% of websites (53% are in English).” Indeed, commentators have long observed the linguistic hegemony of English on the World Wide Web. In 2015, Africans posted hashtags in English over seven times more frequently than the next most popular language, Arabic. Our second, and not entirely unrelated finding, is the disproportionately low use of French hashtags in the African Twittersphere. From Madagascar to Mali, English is Twitter’s ‘lingua franca’ on the continent and even in francophone countries French has no way to bridge the gap.
Yet, there is more to this story than simply the growing ubiquity of English. While our researchers identified many of the continent’s most popular hashtags as being in English, Africa’s new generation of young Twitter users are embracing a new type of international English: ‘Globish’.
The rise of Globish in Africa does not necessarily mean the dominance of English at the expense of all other languages. It is the adaptation and evolution of a language far removed from the prose of Charles Dickens, or even J.K. Rowling. This new patois takes in Twitter language at breakneck speed; from the dynamic #startup to the enigmatic #MGWV hashtag. We have found in our study that English has proven flexible enough to support these internet-led additions to its language.
Conversely, French, which is the third most popular Twitter language, is heavily monitored and regulated by the Académie française and its members known as ‘The Immortals’ and, as such, offers little scope for flexibility. Beyond its various rules and regulations, there are also broad swathes of cultural connotations that accompany its use. In Francophone Africa, use (or non-use) of French can denote social status and years spent in education, and can be a barrier to social mobility.
For many French-speaking Africans, English represents not only the global language that most impacts employability, but a freedom from all of these cultural associations. In North Africa, English can also represent a way of avoiding the French-Arabic dichotomy. Our research has also revealed Romanization of Arabic-Islamic terminology is commonplace, with #koran and #hadith proving some of Africa’s most popular hashtags.
Will English (or Globish) continue to dominate the African Twittersphere or internet landscape as a whole? Not necessarily. The efforts to connect the next billion users to Twitter – many of whom are in Africa – will have a transformative impact on web content in the coming years. These efforts will build on Africa’s impressive growth in mobile phone usage and 3G network coverage. Many of the newly connected will not be familiar with any of the major global languages and will instead pioneer the use of their native languages on Twitter. Just this year we have seen the addition of Amharic, Shona and Xhosa to Google Translate, with nearly 10 million Kinyarwanda speakers expected to be able to use the platform in 2017.
Although we expect English and Globish to continue to dominate Twitter in Africa, we should not be surprised if in our next How Africa Tweets report we see hashtags trending in Wolof!