By Dibussi Tande
The use of social media for political campaigns received a major boost in 2008 thanks the Obama presidential campaign which used social media platforms in a creative way to engage and mobilize voters. Since then, practically all candidates running for political office have tried to replicate the Obama social media strategy, with more or less success. Recent events in North America and the Middle East have also helped to highlight the power of social media as a tool for building a community of supporters or voters, engaging your audience, reaching out to supporters, converting skeptics, generating much needed media buzz, and raising funds.
One of the most striking novelties of the 2011 presidential election in Cameroon is the impressive number of candidates who have incorporated social media into their campaign strategies, even though the Internet penetration rate in the country is estimated at a mere 5%. Obviously, the target audience are Cameroonians abroad and the international community, and significantly, the international media, which can serve as an echo chamber for candidates and offer the kind widespread and free publicity which regular media outlets in Cameroon cannot – e.g., an interview on the BBC, RFI, and Aljazeera or on TV5.
The most popular social media platforms are Facebook, which allows campaigns to send out mass messages, post pictures and videosm and interact with the public; Twitter, which is used to send short and targeted messages to thousands of followers and to interact with others; YouTube to post campaign vidoes; and Flickr to post campaign pictures.
So how are those Cameroonian presidential aspirants who have ventured into the social media landscape faring? Here is a an overview.
President Paul Biya
The president’s relatively recent social media presence is part of a much broader (and reportedly very expensive) PR campaign crafted by Patricia Balme, the most recent in a series of French “communications guru,” who have managed the President's image since 1992, and whose firm, PB Com International, has been responsible for some time now of sprucing up the Biya regime’s image on the international scene. [YouTube video]. In addition to his official campaign website, President Biya also has a Facebook page with over 7000 fans, and a Twitter profile/handle.
It is worth noting that the President doesn’t personally update his Twitter and Facebook accounts. In fact, only two African Heads of State, Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Jim Kikwete of Tanzania personally write their own Tweets and directly engage their audience.
Without doubt, Kah Walla is the presidential candidate with the most prominent online footprint. Not only does she have a robust bilingual website, she also maintains a regularly updated Facebook page with over 5400 fans, which showcases her grassroots activities in Cameroon, outlines her political vision and economic program, and includes a TV component called Kah Walla TV.
In addition, there are dozens, if not hundreds of videos of and about her on YouTube and elsewhere thanks to her vast network of supporters. Surprisingly, Kah only recently established a Twitter account but rarely tweets, thereby missing out on a chance to interact directly with some of the political and media powerhouses who can give her campaign additional visibility.
Ben Muna might be one of the newest arrivals on the social media scene, but he has already hit the ground running with a flashy bilingual website, a regular updated Facebook page, and twitter timeline which has been quite active since his candidacy was officially confirmed by ELECAM. Most significantly, Muna is the only candidate with a dedicated YouTube channel.
Nonetheless, Muna still has a lot of catching up to do in terms of making his social media platforms true online communities. For example, as of September 16, 2011, Muna’s Facebook page had only 15 fans.
Paul Abine Ayah
Paul Ayah does not have a website or a Twitter handle, but his campaign team is very present on Cameroonian e-groups and Facebook. In fact, Ayah has two Facebook accounts; a Facebook profile with over 5000 friends and a Facebook page with only 13 fans – a sign that Ayah’s dynamic campaign team has not yet to fully understand how Facebook works – A Facebook profile is a personal account which, by default, is only visible to friends. Facebook pages, on the other hand, are visible to anyone on the Internet by default, and are therefore more appropriate for public figures who want to create a solid and authentic public presence. Although Ayah’s Facebook profile is open to the public, his campaign would be more online visibility if he uses his Facebook page as his primary campaign tool.
Dang is another latecomer to the social media world. Like most candidates who have ventured online, she has a traditional/static website whose major drawback is that it is exclusively in French.
She also has a twitter account which is not being used enough, considering the candidate’s limited name recognition, and a sparse Facebook profile with about 500 friends. She is, however, the only presidential candidate with a Flickr account.
Ekindi, the famous “lion hunter” of the 1992 presidential campaign is an old hand on the social media scene with a long, albeit irregular, presence on Twitter and Facebook. Ekindi also has a website, which is not particularly geared toward the 2011 election.
Garga Haman Adji
Garga has Facebook page, with 1300 followers, which is not regularly updated. He is not any other major social media platform. Social media is definitely not part of his campaign strategy.
Momo Jean de Dieu
Even though he has a Facebook profile, Momo doesn’t also seem interested in online campaigning as his profile is used primarily for personal exchanges.
John Fru Ndi
There are at least four Facebook profiles and one Facebook page dedicated to the SDF Chairman, although it is doubtful that any of them is officially sanctioned by the Chairman or the SDF. In short, the SDF/Fru Ndi no Facebook presence – an indication that the party is in dire need of a new generation of leaders and activists at ease with modern communications tools and strategies.
An SDF-News Twitter account was recently created but it doesn’t seem to be part of any concerted SDF communications or campaign strategy since it carries little or no SDF campaign-related information (at least, as of Sept 16). It is not clear if the profile was created by an SDF party sympathizer or by the party. There is also an SDF website which as of September 16 had not been updated since August 2011. In short, the SDF seems to be a very reluctant player on the social media scene, if at all.
It is worth pointing out that a number of “non-candidates” who had been actively campaigning online for months, if not years, ended up not making the final list of 21 candidates for a variety of reasons.
The most prominent of these was Christopher Fomunyoh, associate and regional director for Central and West Africa at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), whom the local press had already dubbed “le joker des americains.” In fact, before the emergence of Kah Walla, Chris trod the Cameroonian Diaspora and social media scene like a colossus. In the end, he decided not to take part in the October 9 presidential election because “After numerous consultations and a lot of soul searching, my supporters and I determined that I could not, in good conscience, become an accomplice in this charade of a process.”
Mention must also be made of former SDF adviser and former Southern Cameroons activist, Nfor Susungi who unofficially threw his hat into the ring early this year. His online campaing was a content rich once was, unfortunately, limited to Facebook with absolutely no mobilizatory effort on the ground, or even a symbolic “small party” to give his campaign traction on the ground. Whatever the case, his was a rather lively short-lived social media campaign where the aspiring candidate engaged friend and foe without fear or favor.
Will Social Media Have an Impact on Elections?
Even though candidates primarily target Cameroonians in the Diaspora and the international community with their online campaigning, presidential candidates with even a minimal social media presence still have the potential to increase their reach even within Cameroon. For example, the latest official figures put the total number of Facebook users in Cameroon at 429 840. Studies show that the regular Facebook user has an average of 130 friends. Jay SMits points out that "Political camapigns are more likely than commercial products to inspire passion, and as such have an even greater potential to motivate social media users to share information about a candidate with friends and followers." Thus, a candidate such as Kah Walla is theoretically able to reach about 650,000 Facebook users thanks to her over 5000 Facebook fans. Since some of these 5000 fans may share the same friends (e.g., individuals from the same school), we can reduce this number to 200,000 distinct individuals who may potentially read each message that the candidate posts on Facebook - All of this for free...
From a purely social media and networking perspective, the social media strategy of the presidential aspirants has a major flaw. The candidates treat social media platforms like bulletin boards where they talk to their audience, rather than like online communities where they listen to and interact with their audience. In other words, they have adopted the one way communications method used by traditional media, rather than the two-way communication approach which is the strength of social media, thereby "miss[ing] the opportunity to engage visitors as ambassadors, donors, volunteers and voters."
For campaigns to make the most of their investment in an online presence, they must provide opportunities for engagement… Campaign must embrace the elements of social networking that create its appeal: the ability to share. Twitter may offer the opportunity to broadcast information but if a campaign uses Twitter to talk but not to listen, it is missing out on half the conversation. Twitter users seek to connect, not simply gather information. [All politics is social]
Little or no mobile phone campaigning
It is worth pointing out that none of the campaigns seem to have incorporated mobile phone communication which allows them to share ideas and gather critical data. This is a significant oversight considering that there are over 10 million mobile phone subscribers in Cameroon. While candidates need resources and technically savvy teams to deploy services such as Frontline SMS which allow candidates to send bulk text messages to large groups of people with cell phones, candidates are not harnessing the power of simple and free tools such as SMS via Twitter service which is available to the roughly 7 million MTN subscribers, and which the government temporarily banned in April 2011.