Liberia: Will Social Media Increase Civic Engagement?

Counselor Track (CT): Shelby, you are welcome to this interview. Can you please give us a brief introduction of yourself and your career background?

Shelby Grossman (SG): Before starting graduate school, I worked with human rights organizations in Liberia and Nigeria, and with a foundation in the US. Additionally, for more than 6 years I have maintained a blog on West African politics.

CT: The growing usage of the internet and social media in Liberia is certainly a progressive trend. Having worked in Liberia, can you briefly tell us how the internet and social media are viewed by the cross sections of the Liberia population?

Shelby Grossman. Image used with permission.

Shelby Grossman. Image used with permission.

SG: My sense is that Liberians who use social media use it mostly to connect with people outside of Liberia. They might use email and Facebook to communicate with the large Liberian community in the United States, and share and view pictures about life on both sides of the Atlantic. A friend of mine who started an internet cafe made most of his money by offering internet phone calls to the US. More and more, however, Liberians in Liberia seem to be using Facebook to share photos and life events among themselves as well.

CT: Liberia is a post war nation which currently lacks reliable electricity and sufficient human resource in the IT related careers. How does this state of affair affect the overall impact and growth of social media as well as Internet access?

SG: Poor infrastructure is a huge obstacle for social media use. My friend who started the internet cafe had to shut it down after several months, as the costs of running a generator to power the cafe were prohibitively high. Smart phones are an increasingly popular way to access social media sites, but they are not conducive to creating and maintaining blogs. I think this can partly explain the dearth of active blogs by Liberians in Liberia.

CT: Are social media platforms a significant public sphere in Liberia?

SG: Social media in Liberia is a significant public sphere for a certain Liberians – namely urban, educated Liberians.

CT: Can social media in the long run increase civic engagement in Liberia?

SG: There are competing predictions about the ways in which social media could affect civic engagement. On the one hand, Twitter can spread information about where a protest is taking place and encourage more people to participate. On the other hand, if an incentive for civic engagement is to obtain information (e.g. I go out to the protest because I want to see how bigit is, and hear what the protest leaders have to say, and then tell all my friends about what I saw) social media might decrease civic engagement as this information can be accessed without leaving your home.

CT: 2011 pre-electoral activities and violence created an ‘unfavorable’ and fragile electoral environment, in what ways did social media help improve the situation following the relatively peaceful 2012 General Elections?

SG: Ushahidi-powered platforms allowed Liberians and foreigners to text in incidences of ballot fraud and hate speech and violence, facilitating more rapid responses to these incidences. It is possible that this made the elections more peaceful.

Ushahidi-powered map of election-related incidents from the 2011 Elections in Liberia:

CT: On Thursday 26 April 2012, the former Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted by the the Sierra Leone Special Court in The Hague on 11 counts of crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone, in what significant manners did social media usage among Liberians affect discussions and coverage of trial?

SG: I doubt social media affected the trial, but social media certainly affected the degree to which Liberians could obtain information about the trial and engage with trial controversies.The Trial of Charles Taylor blog, run by the Open Society Justice Initiative, provided daily summaries of trial events for six years, along with analysis of legal issues and occasional commentaries from international law experts. Posts on this blog frequently sparked 40 or more comments and technical legal questions, which OSJI staff responded to promptly. It is difficult to determine what percent of the comments came from Liberians and Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora or at home, but there was certainly a good share of both. Further, Liberian newspapers frequently reprinted these blog posts, making them accessible to Liberians without internet access. The Trial of Charles Taylor blog deserves a huge amount of credit for what engagement there was with the trial.

CT: You followed and sampled the reactions of Liberians on Taylor’s verdict, what are your key findings?

SG: Liberians seemed largely disengaged with the trial over the past six years. The Taylor trial received far less local media coverage than the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings. It’s not completely clear why. One possibility is that the lack of media coverage prevented Liberians from engaging further in the trial, but this seems unlikely.My sense is that the lack of coverage reflected the lack of interest. The Taylor trial was in The Hague, while the TRC hearings were in Liberia, so that’s one possible explanation. The Taylor trial was about one big fish, whereas the TRC hearings took testimony from hundreds, so that’s another possible explanation.But the lack of engagement remains a puzzle to me. If a former US head of state was tried for war crimes Americans would be glued to their TVs watching the trial.

CT: What are the major challenges social media and the internet growth that Liberia faces?

SG: Liberia needs reliable, accessible, and affordable electricity throughout the country. This would make internet cafes cheaper and more accessible to a larger percent of Liberians.

CT: Finally, what message do you have for Liberia’s netizens and other friends of Liberia?

SG: Start a blog ! It is shockingly difficult to find original, reliable reporting about domestic Liberian politics. If a Liberian were to start a good blog about politics and update it regularly it would quickly aquire hundreds of readers.

CT: Shelby, it was really nice having you share your resourceful experience and insights with us. I wish you all the best in your endeavors. Thanks.

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