Novel Uses of Mobile Phones, the Internet and Social Media

2011-05-31

Annette Hübschle, Senior Reseacher, Organised Crime & Money Laundering, ISS Cape Town Office

The rapid expansion of mobile telephony in Sub-Saharan Africa and the emergence and popularity of ‘social media’, are changing the ways people access and share information and how they relate, collaborate and organise themselves.

According to Jenny Aker and Isaac Mbiti writing in the Journal of Economic Affairs there are ten times as many mobile phones as landlines and 60 percent of the population has mobile phone coverage. Out of the estimated 1,01 billion people in Africa, 111 million people were using the Internet by mid- 2010. 18 million Africans were using Facebook by the end of 2010, which constitutes 16% of the total number of Facebook users worldwide. The largest social network in Africa is the South African MXit, a free instant messaging application with 27 million subscribers.

As evidenced during the recent popular revolutions in Northern Africa and the Middle East, information and communication technology (ICT) plays a key role in the mobilisation and organisation of alternative government and economic structures. Globally the interactivity of social networking and open data are regarded as the drivers of a more participatory and democratic culture. On the flipside, authoritarian governments, criminal and terrorist groupings can harness the Internet for their own purposes. This article considers examples of novel uses of mobile phones, social media platforms and interfaces in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Communication technologies researcher Michael Best and his colleagues show the uses of mobile phones in post-conflict Liberia. Besides using mobile phones to improve productivity, as a means of connecting with friends and family, or as essential business tools, respondents regard the mobile phone as a source of personal security. The high prevalence of security and emergency use reported by Liberian mobile phone users is linked to the prevailing state of lawlessness in Liberia. The mobile phone provides security allowing the user to call a family member or an authority in the event of a crime. In several instances, even law enforcement officers regard mobile phones as a form of security.

This was seen in South Africa, where four prisoners at the Grootvlei Prison in Bloemfontein used a mobile phone to secretly film prison officials engaging in various corrupt and illegal activities in 2001. The prisoners had obtained the permission of the Head of Prison to do so. The subsequent Grootvlei video footage showed scenes of warders drinking alcohol with prisoners, juveniles being sold to older inmates for sex, warders smuggling a gun, drugs and alcohol into prison, and food being sold to warders from the prison kitchen. Screened on national television, the video effectively exposed corrupt and criminal governance within the South African prison system and led to a special hearing by the Jali Commission of Inquiry into corruption, maladministration, violence, and intimidation in the Department of Correctional Services (DCS).

Recent ISS research into organised crime in Southern Africa shows that urban gangs and organised crime networks have embraced new media. MXit is especially popular among Cape gangs both in and out of prison. This and other social media are used as tools to communicate, recruit, issue threats, organise criminal operations and expand the criminal empire. Abalone poachers, drug smugglers and car thieves are warned of police road blocs or impending police operations by MXit or text messages. Smuggling of drugs, stolen motor vehicles, counterfeit goods, money, endangered species and people is arranged and executed by text messages and social media interfaces.

International drug networks recruit couriers by way of social networking websites and text messages. Pick up and delivery dates and times, size of the consignments and payment are communicated in this manner. In the case of Sheryl Cwele, the wife of the South African Minister of State Security, and Frank Nabolisa, it was reported that new media was used to recruit two women to become cocaine couriers. Tessa Beetge was arrested after 10kg of cocaine was found in her luggage in Brazil in 2008. Cwele had offered Beetge a job by SMS, followed by a trail of emails and mobile phone communication and lastly a personal encounter. The judge in passing judgment used mainly SMSes and emails between Beetge and Cwele to reach his conclusion. He overruled the objections of lawyers representing Cwele and her associate that interception of mobile phone calls violated their right to privacy.

The research also showed that the foot soldiers of loosely structured transnational networks in Southern Africa are mostly recruited, contacted and informed about the next operation by way of a social media interface or SMS. Individuals provide services on the basis of need and they are expendable. Networks shift experts, activities and methods frequently. The fluidity and anonymity of the new media provide protection from detection by law enforcement. In most instances, these foot soldiers know their employer’s identity only virtually – by way of a pseudonym, a Facebook, Twitter or social media false identity or an avatar.

As mentioned earlier, the use of new media to bolster social activism and civil disobedience campaigns was most graphically evident in the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East earlier this year. Further south, thousands of people took to the streets of Maputo after the price of bread increased by 20 % in August 2010. Ten people were killed and more than 440 injured. The violent food riots were fuelled by a mass text message campaign calling on people to carry on protesting against the price hike despite the violent police response. Thereafter the Mozambican communications authority closed down all SMS communication in the country for several days. In Kenya, post-election violence in the Rift Valley in 2008 was amplified by a mass SMS campaign inciting mob justice. At the height of the crisis the Kenyan government considered shutting down the SMS system. Mobile phone providers convinced the government otherwise by sending out messages of peace to all customers. At the same time, a group of Kenyans from the Diaspora led by Ory Okolloh launched the online campaign Ushaidi (Swahili for “testimony”)to create awareness about the violence devastating Kenya. The site collected eyewitness accounts of violence using text messages and Goggle Maps and plotted them on a map, using the locations given by users. Users could add photos, video and written content. Ushaidi collected testimonies of riots, stranded refugees, rapes and death at a faster rate than election monitors and reporters.

Social networks have become powerful tools of communication and vehicles for social change and activism. They function like watchdogs, monitoring government violence, corruption and inaction. Twitter was used to document the Arabian Spring, Youtube hosts numerous video clips of governmental violence, corruption and abuses of power, and Facebook is home to a variety of groups and networks dedicated to uncovering and sharing information about specific human rights abuses. Wikileaks has provided an explosive insight into the workings of US overseas diplomacy and foreign politics. Unfortunately, criminal networks have discovered the virtues of virtual communication too. It is therefore not surprising that several governments in the region and beyond are attempting to restrict or control Internet access and censor the free flow of information it enables. We need to keep a watchful eye on such attempts, to retain the socially beneficial, but reject the negative aspects.

 

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