With Internet shutdowns becoming the norm during Africa's elections, a tech group is betting on Ghana staying online when the country votes so it can track social media to spot potential trouble.
Shutting down the Internet looks like becoming the rule rather than the exception when African nations go to the polls. In 2016, governments in Gabon, Uganda, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville and, most recently, Gambia have shut down the Internet or social media around election time.
Even in Ghana, long considered a shining light of democracy in Africa, the police chief has threatened several times to close down social media during the December 7 general elections.
But Penplusbytes, a non-governmental organization committed to using new technologies to strengthen governance, is counting on Ghana's social media being awash with information on election day.
By using software programmed with keywords to track what Ghanaians are posting online during the polling, the organization aims to pick up on problems on the ground and get them resolved quickly. (The open-source software, Aggie, behind the tool here is available on GitHub and you can find out more here)
A rotating team of around 35 staff and volunteers will track Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds and texts sent to a dedicated SMS shortcode in real time for 72 hours. The software analyzes and visualizes keyword trends, which can be grouped into topics – such as voting logistics (Is the polling station open on time? Are there enough ballot papers?), violence, political parties or specific locations with a history of trouble. The team can use these trends to detect potential irregularities or violence and pass these incidents on to the appropriate authorities.
"The fact that we are watching social media means that when you post something or tweet something, like a problem with ballot boxes or a security issue, then we can get this information to the right authorities and get the issue attended to," said Kingston Tagoe, a software developer who is coordinating the project for Penplusbytes.
In Ghana's 2012 election, when Penplusbytes used the software for the first time, it logged nearly 350 incidents.
Penplusbytes has partnered with several official organizations and NGOs, including Ghana's Electoral Commission, the National Election Security Taskforce (which includes army and police) and a coalition of domestic election observers so that it can directly pass on its reports to those responsible.
Speaking on Skype from Ghana, Tagoe also stressed the importance of determining if the information is true before passing it on. Misinformation and false news are rife at sensitive periods such as elections (and are one of the reasons often cited by authorities for closing down social media), so verification is paramount, he said.
The social media tracking project is dependent, of course, on Ghana staying online during the election period – something that earlier in the year looked less likely.
In May, Ghana's Inspector General of Police, John Kudalor, said if the situation called for it, police would consider blocking social media on the eve or day of elections. His comments triggered a storm of online protests and many groups, including Penplusbytes, penned their disapproval of the shutdown threat.
The social media tracking project is dependent on Ghana staying online during the election period
In a statement seen as a victory for digital rights and freedom of expression, Ghana's President John Mahama (a very active social media user) later chimed in on the debate, promising in August that the government had "no intention to shut down social media on election day."
Jeremiah Sam, program director at Penplusbytes and a journalist, said he thinks Ghana is "safe from an Internet shutdown at the moment." Having so many citizens, politicians and organizations vocally united against an Internet shutdown undoubtedly makes it more difficult for officials to order such an action, he said.
But Sam also believes Penplusbytes' strategy of meeting with the police and talking and working with them to explain how social media works and its advantages for the force has been particularly effective.
"When it comes to face-to face combat, [the police] are trained at the police academy. But when it comes to social media, they don't know how to handle it – and if they don't know how to handle it, it's a threat," Sam said.
"So when we talk to the police, we sell the idea that social media is actually an asset."
By picking up on inciting language or acts of aggression, the early warning tracking tool, for instance, can help pick up on issues before they flare, making the police's work easier.
In the past months, police representatives have visited Penplusbytes to see the social media tracking tool in action and better understand how it works. The Ghana police has now started using social media more effectively themselves and started a Twitter account in October They are also using the hashtag #safeballot to campaign for peace during the Ghana 2016 elections, Sam pointed out.
With Ghana's elections looming, it remains to be seen if the country stays online and allows social media to play a central role in keeping its citizens participating and informed.
Penplusbytes' Social Media Tracking Tool was supported by DW Akademie, Germany’s leading organization for international media development, with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).