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Mediatization of politics on social media in Ethiopia

Unless both the general users and the online opinion leaders become responsible for their actions, the political altercations on social media can cause mayhem and halt the development of a strong democratic system in our country, writes Kibrom Berhane.

Partly because different media platforms do have relatively different roles in political communication, changes in the media of communication can influence the way politics should be communicated. The conventional media, for instance, are thought to be mediators of objectively framed news and information between different stakeholders. In this sense, the practice of mediation (not mediatization) can be defined as, in the words of Frank Esser, a “neutral act of transmitting messages through the media.” Therefore, when we talk about mediation of politics – particularly on the conventional media – one can say that we refer to people’s accessibility of relatively impartial information about politics (from the media).

Mediatization, however, is more than a process of transmitting messages in a ‘neutral’ way. In the realm of mediatization, media do not act only as mediators between, for instance, people and political leaders or establishments or other stakeholders. Mediatization refers to the strong influence of the media on political and social change processes.

Particularly after the coming of the Internet then the social media platforms, it is argued that media have become an integral part of interactions among different sections of people and individuals. This, in some ways, indicates that the change in the communication media seems to change the political narration in the global as well as in our country’s context.

Probably due to their affordability and openness for almost anyone (who has access to the Internet and communication gadgets), the role of social media, such as Facebook, in mediatizing social, political, and cultural issues appears to be extensive. The challenge, however, is that unlike the communication habit within the conventional media sphere, on social media, according to Tanase Tasente, “communication is [primarily] routed by the online opinion leaders” and their zealous followers rather than by professionally oriented communication experts. For this reason, Facebook and the other social media platforms usually mediatize political and other related issues which are pertinent to the subjective interests of the general user and of some influential online writers (or opinion leaders).

As a result of which, it is possible to argue that our perception towards the political context in our country appears to be (consciously or unconsciously) substantially shaped by the unrefined and subjectively framed messages from the social media than by the relatively ‘objective’ messages mediated through the traditional media. This kind of political communication also engendered continuing (ethnic and political) controversies in our country.

So, who should be blamed: the users or the very nature of social media platforms?

In my opinion, when we talk about the influences of social media on our political arguments and views, we should focus on the roles and responsibilities of the online opinion leaders and their gullible followers. In other words, social media platforms are just tools of communication; and it is up to the user to apply them either for destructive or productive purposes.

In the age of social media, one can argue that the issues that we mediatize are essentially under our control. It is the level of our moral integrity that makes them good or bad. The inebriating dialogues of ethnic politics on these platforms in our country, thus, are the outcome of slanted and obnoxious views of the so-called opinion leaders and the uncritical mass that they produced through their intoxicating personal opinions.

In the context of the conventional media, for instance, the gatekeepers (i.e. content editors) might be responsible for the refinement and distribution of information important for the general public. On social media, on the other hand, opinion leaders and their followers are responsible for almost all the actions that take place on their online pages.

If we appraise the very nature of social media, compared with the top-down nature of information flow in the conventional media, they might rather be crucial for participatory political discussions. If managed responsibly, social media platforms would give individuals the opportunity to control and select information that interest them. Moreover, due to the interactivity, flexibility, and affordability of the social media, we – the ordinary people – are no more passive consumers of information – we are active and creative actors.

The communication media in the modern age, according to Bruhn Jensen, are termed as institutions-to-think-with – they enable us reflexivity. It is to mean that they do not serve us only as information transferring instruments; they rather help us ascribe, interpret, and circulate meaning in the society. The problem, however, is that we – both the online opinion leaders and the general users – seem to fail to develop moral responsibilities to control our activities. This means, we encounter more negative messages than constructive discussions because of our own mistakes. Accordingly, the opinion leaders and other users are responsible for the actions that take place on social media.

Nonetheless, in our country, the so-called opinion leaders seem to be at the forefront in abusing the socio-political discussions on social media. I believe that the opinion leaders, deliberately or not, personalize and trivialize the political discussions. In most cases they fail to emphasize on stable and substantiated ideologies. For this reason, reasoned and settled arguments appear to be supplanted by the herd mentality and views of impromptu groupings spearheaded by the opinion leaders.

Generally speaking, because of the heedlessness of the general user and, most importantly, of the opinion leaders, it is possible to argue that social media platforms in Ethiopian context predominantly serve as tools to publicize extremist rhetoric, populist views and emotional appeals. Conversely, it appears that their traits as platforms of productive socio-political interactions and multi-directional communication tools remain untapped. This might also adversely influenced the political context in the country.

Therefore, unless both the general users and the online opinion leaders become responsible for their actions, the political altercations on social media can cause mayhem and halt the development of a strong democratic system in our country. As long as we actively use them, only we can control the volatility of communication on the social networking sites. Thus, we should be cautious about the views we send through the social media platforms. Yet again, it should be emphasized that social media opinion leaders are responsible for leading the objective of using social media platforms for positive ends.

Ed.’s Note: Kibrom Berhane is a lecturer of Journalism and Communication at Mekele University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]


Contributed by Kibrom Berhane
Contributed by Kibrom Berhane