The Anglophone crisis that has put Cameroon in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons clearly underscores how social media, a key development tool, can become a force for unity and mobilization on the one hand and a tool to manipulate and expose violence and injustice on the other. This crisis which,occurred amid political and economic exclusion of Southern Cameroonians, has scarred the country’s social and political landscape forever. It calls for the establishment of a new status quo as the status quo ante is no longer tolerated by Cameroon’s English-speaking minority. The effectiveness of social media in mobilizing Anglophone Cameroonians across the world cannot be overemphasized. Across the world, social media have been considered as “technologies of freedom” that have given the voiceless an opportunity to express their views and have access to the public sphere. In Cameroon, while the government has always viewed social media as tools that should drive development, the ordinary citizens have always seen them a little differently though they agree on their role as agents of development. The emergence of social media technologies raised a lot of enthusiasm about citizen political participation in the public sphere in the digital era and this was based on the popularity of these technologies and the fact that they would provide relative autonomy from state and commercial control and influence when it comes to the dissemination of information.
Social mediaare considered to be extremely effective means to record, store and distribute information and the crisis in West Cameroon has proven that beyond a doubt. Most of the information about government atrocities was brought to the world in real time, thanks to this technologies of freedom. The ferocious brutality that has been the government stock in trade throughout this crisis and the violence perpetrated by protesters was captured and released to the world, thanks to social media.The beauty of social media stems from the two-way flow of information while at the same time they are independent of spatial constraints. Considered exceptional tools for individuals and groups to promote their causes to public officials and interested members of the public, social media have demonstrated during the Anglophone crisis that they are effective in exposing violence from both sides of the conflict that is tearing Cameroon apart. The government’s response to the publication of incriminating videos, some purported to be fake, highlights the role social media can play to bring the people’s plight into the spotlight.
Based on the positive results social media have delivered in other parts of the world, especially in the Arab world where many dictatorshave been kicked out of power, the use of social media in Cameroon for participatory communication in the public sphere is viewed as a significant path to the advancement of deliberative and participatory democracy in Cameroon, especially at a time when human rights are suffering. Over the last two decades, the country’s global media sector has been decisively changed due to the globalization of electronic media and what were once highly regulated industries, often dominated by public service or governmental broadcasters, have been open to individual citizens to use to obtain access to the public sphere and influence government actions and policies. While the government of Cameroon may still be dragging its feet regarding the holding of genuine dialogue with Consortium leaders, the popular demonstrations that have taken place abroad and the population’s compliance with decisions taken by various Anglophone organizations are testimonies to the effectiveness of social media as tools for mobilization and political communication. Often seen as redemptive features of new media are the availability of large stores of information for citizens to tap without the prior intervention of media gatekeepers or other mediators; interactivity which enables citizens to find out things for themselves rather than passively receiving or ignoring what is given and the creation of virtual forums which make it possible for exchanges between citizens and officials. Today, social media dominate in the new media era and this has made information about government actions just a click away; a possibility that is widely exploited by Southern Cameroonians to challenge government authority and highlight its weaknesses.
In Cameroon, just like in other parts of the world, social media such as Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter are delivering information and documents to the population in a very fast way. Unlike print communication, social media have given the ordinary Cameroonian greater access to information and significant possibilities to participate in the political discourse which, in the past was a luxury to the poor. Falling Internet charges are enabling many Cameroonians to engage in online communication which has altered the substance, form, and style of communication in ways that have never been seen before, creating new-style electronic formats such as Internet discussion groups and chat rooms. These platforms have also creatednew public spaces and provided unprecedented opportunities for political discourse in the country; a tool the Anglophone minority, especially its Diaspora, is making the most of.
The coming of the social media age is not only serving as a catalyst that is instigating a populist political movement in Cameroon where citizens have greater access to the political world than before, it is going a long way in educating huge segments of the population which were once cut off from the political reality of their country. Social media are serving as stimulants to political interest and activism among Cameroonians, a situation that is very disturbing to the country’s government. In Cameroon today, ordinary citizens are able to establish meaningful and effective roles for themselves in the political arena that has been primarily the domain of the elite and this is causing the government of Cameroon to lose sleep and its decision to cut off an entire region from the World Wide Web is a clear demonstration of the government’s inability to win the war of propaganda that has been playing out on the Internet.
With social media, there is more political information disseminated today through a vast diversity of sources than at any time in the country’s history. Political news is available for general audiences through network newscasts and real time news broadcasts. The wide range of available formats also permits information to be targeted at specific audience segments, including those who traditionally have been under-represented in the political world. Social media are allowingCameroonians to receive information that is relevant to them personally and to make contact with others who have similar social and political orientations. As opposed to the “sound-bite” journalism that characterizes much mainstream political media in the country, newer forums have more time and space for the presentation of contextual and historical material as well as extended discussions of issues than the government would have loved.
One of the primary characteristics of the social media age is the interactivity that communications technologies facilitate among citizens, public officials, and media personnel. Rather than merely being the passive recipients of political information, it is now possible for Camerooniansto make their political presence and opinions known. They are today playing more visible roles in political events and this is undermining the government’s influence. For example, record numbers of Cameroonians are joining political organizations other than parties, especially those associated with particular issues. The Anglophone problem has clearly proven this and the citizens’involvement has been aided by media publicity and interactive communication forums which allow them to express their opinions, ask for and obtain information quickly, and receive instructions on how to take action. This explains, in part, why Southern Cameroonians have been successful in mobilizing their citizens across the world over the last three months to leave the government with a sticky situation on its hands.
While social media offer novel opportunities for democratic politics in Cameroon, it is presenting testing times to a regime that is wont to manipulating its people and checking the free flow of information. Social media have created significant communication forums that have the ability to spark citizen interest, increase awareness and knowledge of public affairs, and prompt political participation and dissent. Today, a significant number of Cameroonians seek out political information online and participate in discussions in electronic spaces which grant them the opportunity to develop and express their own opinions. The content and presentational style of news in the traditional media, especially government-owned media in Cameroon, is turning the public off traditional media, with more people migrating to the social media world where information is delivered in real time.
While social media is far from being the cause of recent uprisings in Cameroon, it has become an undeniable fact that social sites are dramatically changing the way protests and revolutions in Cameroon are taking place. Participants and planners have been using social sites like Twitter and Whatsapp to spread the word about upcoming protests, making it easier to gain supporters. Posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have been allowing protesters to form a cohesive voice and to enjoy a feeling of unity. Real time posts on social media have also been offering a raw look at what is happening and eliminating the editing and polishing that can dull mainstream news reports. The global reach and immediate updates available via social media have radically changed the face of the protests in Cameroon and this is highlighting the power of social sharing. Despite the government’s disconnection of the Internet, the power of social media has not declined and their use has grown exponentially among the country’s Diaspora. For many activists, Twitter, Whatsapp and Facebook have become tools to help keep the spotlight on the revolution which is being run out of the country and to remember those who have lost their lives since the uprising, or those who have since been imprisoned by the authorities.
By Dr. Joachim Arrey
About the Author: The author of this piece is a keen observer of Cameroon’s political and economic landscape. He has published extensively on the country’s political and economic development, especially in the early 90s when the wind of change was blowing across the African continent. He has served as a translator, technical writer, journalist and editor for several international organizations and corporations across the globe. He studied communication at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and technical writing in George Brown College in Toronto, Canada. He is also a trained translator and holds a Ph.D.