The Internet is rearranging Ghana’s social fabric in new ways, with both positive and negative outcomes.
— The Internet is shaking up traditional structures in Ghana
— Women and other marginalized groups are developing new ways to participate in society
— Online media is changing social discourse
— Hate speech, misinformation, and cybercrime are becoming major problems
— Education and access are the most important requirements for digital participation
"Digital media is rewriting Ghana’s society. It is rewriting how we understand the world to be." That’s how, in just a few words, pulse.fm product lead Ibukun Onitiju sums up how the Internet is influencing Ghana. It’s beginning to rearrange the social fabric, with many positive but also some negative effects. "The kind of content you are seeing and consuming on the Internet is directing how you perceive things," said Onitiju. On the one hand, digital media is helping to enlighten and educate people when it comes to outdated traditions. "Before we had old traditional customs that included female genital circumcision, for example," he explains. "Digital has broken that barrier and furthered the education, which is making huge positive impacts in our society."
The Internet is opening up new spaces for dialogue for the people of Ghana, giving a voice to social groups that have struggled to be heard. Curious Minds, for example, works with radio stations to advocate for the interests of young people. Today, digital content plays an increasingly important role in the organization’s work. "A very good thing about social media is that it doesn't expire. Radio is transient; it goes away immediately as it is broadcast, but the discussions continue online. That is the good thing about it. Teachers, parents, and even politicians have realized that it is no longer easy to ignore youth issues," said Kingsley Obeng-Kyereh, head of Curious Minds.
Digital participation is a challenge to Ghana’s deep-rooted patriarchy
Andaratu Imoro is a retailer from Savelugu near Tamale. Digital participation has changed the way she manages her money.
Another group of people that have been frequently overlooked in society are also harnessing social media platforms to spread their message: Ghanaian women. Growing numbers of them are going online to share concerns and organize themselves, according to Vivian Affoah of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA). "I see a lot of female entrepreneurs using social media and the Internet to promote their work and engage in activism as well," she said. Digital participation is a challenge to Ghana’s deep-rooted patriarchy, shaping attitudes to gender equality. "Now there is exposure and women are saying: ‘No, we also have issues to speak about.’ So I think there are improvements in the way women are participating in discussions, especially online," said Vanessa Otchere, a 24-year-old student from Accra.
The Internet is disruptive in other ways as well. Old customs are making way for new ones, and hierarchical barriers to communication are being torn down. For Raymond Acquah, a journalist and program coordinator at MyJoyOnline, this also has its downsides. "It's increasingly eroding what we have held onto for a very long time," he says. In the past, for example, it was off-limits to address a traditional chief directly or even to call him. Then one day Raymond contacted a chief on Facebook – and he answered. "I was shocked at first. I bypassed the entire procedure to seek an audience on this matter – hundreds of years of tradition." But despite such progress, he fears for the cohesion of society.
The volume of misinformation and hate speech has reached worrying levels
The experts are particularly concerned about the culture of conversation on the Internet. The volume of misinformation and hate speech has reached worrying levels, says journalist Kent Mensah. The problem, he argues, is that the Internet has become the preferred news source for many citizens. "People are really going on social media for the news feast before they consume it in the mainstream media, and if this trend continues, there will be an information disaster in this country," he said. Increasingly, this misinformation is disseminated via closed messenger groups, which aggravates the situation even more, because false messages can circulate in this manner for a long time in secret and influence the attitudes of people without ever coming under public scrutiny.
Another problem is that online discussion topics are mainly determined by people living in the cities. Those who are not online are thus cut out of the conversation – a problem for Ghana’s rural population (see article on Access). It is often particularly difficult for women to afford their own Internet access or the necessary equipment, explains Vivian Affoah. "But the rural areas too, are different in terms of how both men and women operate," she said. "Women are really not educated on the use of the Internet. Often women are not able to be online to the extent that they would like, because Internet access is expensive. Most of the women in rural areas really don’t have access to the Internet."
The government is working to balance the opportunities for men and women through its own programs. The Ministry of Communications has organized the 2018 Girls in ICT initiative, with training activities in rural districts (Ministry of Communications, Ghana, 2018). More than 500 young girls from deprived schools in the Ashanti region benefitted from the training. The project was started to introduce the girls to ICT and shatter the myths surrounding the use of ICT by girls in the country.
What experts say:
Vanessa Otchere, journalism student from Accra
Vanessa wants more support for women: "I believe that women have the same potential as men. I think we should all be given equal opportunities to try it out. And if you think it is not for you then you are free to back out, but if you find something you like then you can stay and make your own way."
Kingsley Obeng-Kyereh, head of Curious Minds
Kingsley stresses that increasing participation rates of young people is only possible if they are directly engaged: "Sometimes we want to do things for young people without their participation, and we don’t succeed if they are not interactively involved. So bringing them into the media is a way of letting them know that they are partners in their own development."
Vivian Affoah, senior program officer for freedom of expression at MFWA
Vivian explains that the personal environment is also crucial on the Internet: "You find a lot of people basically misbehaving on social media, with people not being respectful of other people’s opinions. But there are safe places for women on the Internet. It is really about the company, the people you are surrounded by, friends and the people that you follow. They are really the ones that determine whether you are safe or not."
— Promote learning and retraining
Digitalization in Ghana requires a willingness to learn across all levels of society, because business models are shifting and social structures are changing due to digital disruption. Opportunities are arising in many fields, as pulse.fm product lead Ibukun Onitiju explains: "I think in terms of job creation across society – from education, from policies, from capacity development – there are so many ways that introducing digital platforms, digital as a whole, is radically changing what we know. People can now innovate with problems and solve problems which could not be solved before."
— Strengthen digital education
"What I would like are efforts or intervention towards digital literacy," said Vivian Affoah. To realize these opportunities, more education is required. The chances for personal development and participation in social processes need to be publicized more.
— Target media education at parents, too
"Even young people are telling adults to learn so they can teach their children to see the potentials and dangers," said Kingsley Obeng-Kyereh, who is calling on parents to contribute to their children's media education. But to do so, first they must fully understand how the Internet works themselves.
— Close the digital divide
There is still the problem of a digital divide forming between people in metropolitan areas, who benefit from the possibilities of the Internet, and those in rural areas, who are cut off. To close the gap, resources need to be channeled to remote areas.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer