The novel coronavirus pandemic, without any doubt, has come to stay and may likely be with human beings for some time, if not forever.
Probably unlike other very fatal pandemics such as the Black Death, also known as The Plague, which killed an estimated 75–200 million people in the 14th century and others including the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Spanish flu, the SARS-CoV-2, also known as Covid-19, has come to live with us forever like HIV, Cholera, bubonic plague, smallpox, Typhoid, Pulmonary Tuberculosis, Anthrax, Pertussis, Tetanus, Chicken Pox, Yellow Fever, Measles, infectious Hepatitis, Trachoma, malaria among others.
This means its attendant challenges and precautionary measures, including physical distancing, avoiding large gatherings, using nose masks, among others, will also be with us for a very long time.
Ghana will go to the polls to elect a president and MPs in December. In the light of unanticipated pressures put on the global community by the impact and effects of COVID-19, Ghana, like any other country, is under pressure to confront the constitutional mandate and underlying challenges.
A change in the date of the election, at this time, is an unthinkable option because the country cannot afford to gamble with its peace by going through the tumultuous hurdle of postponing its election. Interestingly, in the heat of debate, and amidst threat on the elections management body from different quarters regarding the processes leading to the December polls in an era of COVID-19, all the elections stakeholders agree on one thing: that there should be an election at all cost.
As the political and media landscape become complex, with the ban on large public gathering likely to hang around for a very long while, political parties and candidates in Ghana will have to explore new ways and ideas to effectively market their ideas to the electorate.
Politics and social media
This is where the use of social media in political campaigns, which is now a global trend, comes in as a relevant option. Ndavula, J. O., & Mueni, J. (2014) in their publication “New Media and Political Marketing in Kenya: The Case of 2013 General Elections”, stated that the presidential campaigns of Obama during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections of the United States demonstrated the use of social media as powerful tools for governments and political parties to mobilise their supporters.
Prof Rachel K. Gibson, a professor of Politics at University of Manchester, in her work “New media and the revitalisation of politics”, said the Obama presidential campaign sought to create a whole new political constituency online, raising about half a billion dollars through online platforms such as Facebook.
It is reported that the campaign, which was run on fifteen social media sites (Effing et al., 2011), produced 2,000 official videos, which were viewed 80 million times on YouTube alone and generated about 244,000 unofficial video responses.
While American first ladies have long used media to craft their image, Michelle Obama is said to be the first contemporary First Lady to use social media to promote her public persona. Michelle Obama, who joined Twitter during the 2012 election campaign, used the Twitter handle @Flotus (an acronym for First Lady of the United States) and had 5.06 million followers (in 2016). She also had accounts on Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram. Michelle Obama’s Twitter images are strategic in that they reflect the visual themes that the media traditionally use in their coverage of first ladies.
Specifically, Michelle Obama’s social media messaging portrayed her as an activist mother —who espouses noncontroversial causes such as education and children’s health — and a nonpartisan figure, with deep familial ties.
President Donald Trump, even before declaring his candidacy to contest for the Republican flag bearership, was an avid Twitter user, with a following that dwarfed all other candidates, except Hillary Clinton, whom he later eclipsed.
The constant use of twitter meant that something about Trump was regularly trending and offering countless hooks for journalists trolling for stories. Thus, despite increasingly negative coverage which he generated from the traditional media, the media still kept following his tweets and using as news items in the mainstream media.
This illustrates Trump’s strength in the hybrid media system. His constant unleashing of “tweetstorms” made sure that he was always also in the news in the traditional media.
Other radical revolutions such as the Arab Spring, also known as ‘Facebook Revolution’, was mobilised by using social media. All over the world, social media usage in politics has rapidly grown in popularity over the past few years and, thus, has become a competitive alternative to the print media.
Social media in Ghana politics
Both the governing New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the biggest opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC), during the 2016 elections, used social media advertisement extensively. The parties stepped up their campaign on Twitter and Facebook, with the personal profiles of President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo and former President John Dramani Mahama facilitating the sharing of information about their respective campaigns.
Mr Mahama’s @JDMahama handle and others such as @Flagstaff Ghana and @TransformingGhana combined to keep the public updated on his campaign. Nana Addo’s handle, @NAkufoAddo and @thehope, also used similar posturing on Twitter. Active social media engagement and advertising continued on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
A video posted on the official Facebook page of Mr Mahama in April 2016, showing him spending time with one of his Facebook friends within the first four days of the post, was viewed 155,000 times and shared 1127 times. The NPP’s ‘I am for Nana’ app and the ‘Meet JM’ app enabled people to sign up to have intimate information about their political parties and candidates.
Penplusbytes reported that civil society groups such as Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO) used social media to educate the public on the 2016 limited voters’ registration and other related issues. Ghana Decides, a Blogging Ghana Election Project, launched the online #iRegistered campaign to get eligible Ghanaians to register in 2016 limited registration exercise between April 28 and May 8 2016.
2020 and social media
According to political science professor at the University of Ghana, Ransford Edward Van Gyampo, in his paper ‘Political Parties and Social Media in Ghana’, the most distinctive feature of political parties, when comparing them to any other political interest groups, is that they are the only entity whose primary goal is that of contesting and capturing state power through peaceful means. With this in view, political parties have the onerous duty to brighten their chances with the use of social media.
Fortunately for the political parties, the social media market place keeps expanding by the day. New innovations have brought about platforms such as Zoom, google meet, among others. Already known platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Twitter, YouTube etc give political parties the opportunities to meet the electorate with ease.
According to Internet World Statistics, in 2013, Africa had 16 per cent internet penetration and 67 million smartphones in use. In 2014, internet penetration in Africa increased to 26.5 per cent. Indeed, there are indications that internet penetration in Africa will reach 50 per cent by 2025 and that the continent will be home to 360 million smartphones.
Ghana, as at 2016, had more than five million (5,171,993) Internet users, representing 19.6 per cent of the population, while Ghana’s Facebook user base was about 1,211,760. This number is expected to have increased exponentially, due to the rapid growth in internet users in the country.
Fortunately, the leadership of the main political parties knows the relevance of social media and is expected that same will be used to their advantage.
As stated by General Secretary of the NDC, Johnson Asiedu Nketia, “If the youth constitute the majority of Ghana’s voting population and are also the dominant users of social media, then it makes sense for us to target them on social media and get them to our side.”
In similar breath, the General Secretary of the NPP, John Boadu states: “…Our core supporters are always with us. We find a lot of undecided voters on social media and seek to draw on their support there…”
They are expected to utilise the resources (social media) at their disposal more effectively at great speed and to a larger audience at lower cost. This is intended at altering the rigid internal party systems, by allowing a bottom-up decision-making process to facilitate membership mobilisation. Additionally, this enhances the image of the respective political parties in the current traditional media landscape.
The author is the General Secretary of the Graduate Students Association of Ghana (GRASAG National) and a Masters of Arts (Communication Studies) student of the Department of Communication Studies, University of Ghana.