This research project is no longer actively updated or managed.
Research Project

Politics and Interactive Media in Africa

Africa’s digital revolution continues apace, yet broadcast media are vital for reaching poor and remote populations, and the more marginalised, now and in the foreseeable future. Flourishing interactive broadcast shows are not ideal spaces of democratic politics, yet research through the collaborative PiMA project has discovered how and why they matter.

PiMA, or Politics and Interactive Media in Africa, was an 18-month collaborative research project funded by the ESRC and DFID, with a focus on the expressions of ‘public opinion’ in broadcast media via new information and communication technologies (ICT) such as mobile phones in Kenya and Zambia. It also examined the political implications of such interactions in the two African countries, with a view to draw conclusions of wider significance to practitioners and policymakers.

By examining interactive radio and TV programmes comparatively in the context of electoral and everyday politics in Kenya and Zambia, we sought to advance understanding of the significance of such hybrid and convergent technological developments in Africa for the contribution of democratic governance to poverty alleviation. The project took into account the hybrid character of the use of ICTs and the interactions between different modes, venues and actors of information gathering and dissemination, which are particularly prominent among Africa’s poorest people.

Aims and objectives

PiMA had four overarching research and policy related objectives:

  • To deliver a detailed comparative study of the effects of poor people exercising voice in the public sphere through ICTs on citizens, broadcast stations and state authorities and political elites.
  • To deepen theoretical and conceptual understanding of how interactions enabled through ICTs are changing pro-poor participation, broadcast media ‘Fourth Estate’ role and responsive governance/electoral-politics.
  • To contribute to more innovative, inclusive and robust practices by broadcast media in mediating ‘public opinion’ and public sphere deliberations, notably during elections.
  • To contribute to regulatory and policy development through structured interactions with government authorities and development actors.

Research Framework

Across Africa, the explosion in listener interactions with traditional broadcast media and through media-driven ‘public opinion’ polling is remarkable. Yet it has been largely under-studied. Research on ICTs and democracy in developing countries has focused on the transformative potential of new digital and Internet-based platforms like e-governance and social media for political mobilisation, participation and accountability. Less attention has been paid to hybrid and convergent technological developments, notably how new communication technologies are creating opportunities for citizens to utilise and inhabit other media such as radio, which are often more relevant for the poor, women and the marginalised.

Similarly, while equitable access to ICT provision has remained a serious hurdle (the ‘digital divide’), emerging challenges have been concerned with ‘digital divisiveness’, where promises of improved participatory politics and political accountability have been undermined by the distortive capacity and manipulability of digital communications, so that politically oriented representations of ‘what the people want’ are being presented as the ‘genuine’ ‘public opinion’. A better evaluation of the potential of new ICTs was therefore required to improve the quality of participatory democratic discussion and mitigate – at least, not exacerbate – inequalities, prejudices and tensions that already exist.

The project’s central research question was: To what extent is the citizen’s participation in the media through the use of new ICTs impacting upon mechanisms of political accountability, political control, inclusion of marginalised people and the quality of democratic electoral politics?

To address this, the project investigated the following four specific research questions:

  • To what extent is media interactivity widening and deepening political participation in Africa?
  • How does citizen’s participation in media through new ICT influence value formation processes and local ideas on democracy and identity?
  • How is ‘public opinion’ collected and represented by African media, and for what (and whose) purposes?
  • To what extent is public opinion via media interactivity improving accountability mechanisms and policy makers’ behaviour.

Cases and methodology

The project’s empirical entry point for investigation was interactive radio and TV programmes using text-ins, phone-ins, and media-initiated SMS ‘public opinion’ polling. By examining these comparatively in the context of electoral politics and post-election legacies in Kenya and Zambia, we sought to draw insights of wider significance for understanding developments across Africa. In Kenya and Zambia, social inequalities (based on gender, resources, ethnicity, birthplace and education) have historically constrained access to citizenship and political participation, whether due to authoritarianism, discrimination, economic constraints or self-censorship. Elections are privileged moments to learn how new channels and uses of citizen voice are being created, and what their effects might be on political practice and accountability. To advance understanding in this way, the project employed a combination of survey-based and ethnographic research methods so as to establish an overall understanding of who is taking part, as well as the dynamics around interactivity.