The Covid-19 pandemic has brought significant challenges to public forums, especially those of a political or civic kind.
Given that public health considerations take precedence over social engagements, conventional forms of engagements have been crippled or rendered rudderless. Politicians, particularly, have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, necessitating a complete change in their public engagements. Except for isolated cases reeking of selfish defiance, restrictions to curb the spread of the virus have made it impossible to hold political gatherings, as was previously the norm. Consequently, some overly vocal figures on the political scene have gone unnoticeable for months.
Attempts to restructure some predominant physical engagements to adapt to reality of the pandemic have so far fallen short of expectation. Further, in countries like the United States, defiance and denial of the magnitude and seriousness of the pandemic has come with irreversible consequences, as evident from the high number of infections and deaths.
Notably, politicians and other public figures have recognised the power of digital platforms as an alternative means of engaging with the masses. In recent days, political activity on social networks has grown exponentially. Discussions on social networking sites have led to youth engaging more on political issues. According to UNICEF, youth today use digital platforms to establish their civic identities and declare political stances. Through these modes, youth can now voice concerns and table their agenda, unlike in the past where they remained marginalised.
Recent happenings globally prove that the digital world is equally, if not more, powerful. The world witnessed Black Lives Matter protests accelerate from the epicentre in Minnesota throughout the United States and across the vast Pacific and Atlantic oceans to Australia and the United Kingdom. This was one of the greatest testaments of the power of digital platforms.
Similar occurrences have also been witnessed in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Uganda, the rise of ‘People Power’ has been largely attributable to social media activism by Robert Kyagulanyi – Bobi Wine – who has stood firmly against oppression by the current regime. Not to forget embers of the Arab Spring that were blown into a raging inferno online.
From these, it is evident that the world’s interconnectedness, thanks to the digital revolution has made it easier for humans to form communities, uniting strangers around a common cause, ideal, or belief. In a world where even those who reside in remote places can access the internet, it only takes a post on Facebook, a hashtag, or a branded social media avatar to stir a revolution.
With the Covid-19 restrictions, there has been a meteoric rise in creation and sharing of digital content, to cater for grounded audiences. Zoom meetings and webinars have become the norm, especially for leaders striving to sustain their potency. However, there is a striking contrast in the nature of engagement on digital platforms compared to what is typical of political rallies and gatherings. Given discussions online are topical, leaders have to demonstrate ability to articulate their ideas clearly and defend their ideals in a manner that resonates with citizens if they are to be granted an audience. The mass hysteria characteristic of political rallies and other traditional forms of engagement that politicians often ride on, no longer exists. Citizens are also forced to be more critical of information shared by leaders.
Amplification of digital civic engagement is a premonition of things to come. While traditional, in-person forms of civic engagement cannot be completely eradicated, time is ripe to fully go digital and strengthen frameworks that facilitate the same. A critical element remains improving access to quality and reliable information which the nature and quality of online discussions are dependent on. Over the years, Kenya has made significant strides in enhancing access to public information, a right prescribed and guaranteed in the Constitution. However, existing frameworks remain weak, as critical information regarding public debt, tendering processes, procurement and budget remains difficult to access.
The desired success can only be attained through inter-ministerial synergies to ensure established frameworks are firm, functional and incorruptible. Success is also predicated in enhancing digital infrastructure, granting those in rural and marginalized areas a unique focus to ensure their voices and concerns are sufficiently represented.
It is also important to pay attention to deterring rampant sharing of fake news and disinformation through digital platforms. While online platforms provide avenues for reaching wide segments of the population, it also makes it easier to share fake news and misinform the public, thus shadowing and diluting quality of online engagements. To counter such, it is also important that efforts be channeled towards equipping citizens, particularly the youth, with media and information literacy skills to increase their capacity to create, consume, critique and disseminate online information. One such initiative is the recent Media and Information Literacy training by the Africa Center for People Institutions and Society supported by UNESCO.
Considering the increasing cases of cyber-bullying, it is also important to have candid conversations regarding how best to put together safeguards, in the form of law or policy. This will ensure digital safety for billions of users across the world, especially young people.
Digital civic engagement is gaining traction and will outlast the Covid-19 era. This ushers in a new era that promotes inclusion of youth and other groups that have traditionally been excluded and unheard in decision-making processes. It is an era where every member of the society has equal opportunity to establish their civic identities, elevating them to a better position to be diligent and active in performing their civic duties.
Overall, investment in strengthening digital civic engagement mechanism is in a worthwhile endeavor that must be encouraged if we are to foster responsible citizenry moving forward, post-Covid pandemic.