Research

The African continent has experienced a phenomenal growth rate in internet use from barely five million in 2000 to over 330 million in 2016. The trend is same for mobile phone use. As more people have access to new digital communication technologies, political actors seeking political office are increasing adopting and adapting these technologies to mobilize supporters.

My dissertation research focuses on how presidential campaigns use digital media for campaigning in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) within the context of ethnic politics that is so commonly associated with campaigning on the subcontinent. A strand of literature on elections in SSA contends that if a country holds elections regularly, people would learn democratic norms and overtime the quality of democracy would improve [1]. This has motivated most of the recent technology-focused studies on SSA elections to explore how digital media make elections more transparent and credible.

A more prominently accepted strand argues that democratic progress on the subcontinent has been impeded in many countries by clientelism and ethnic politics[2]. In other words, even if free and peaceful elections are held regularly, the conducts and communication of political elites before and after elections have serious consequences for democracy. Since elites play an important role in promoting clientelism and ethnicity, understanding how they organize their teams and interact with voters could give a clue about the health and direction of a country’s democracy. Using Ghana as a case study, the main goal of my research is to understand how the two major presidential candidates who contested the 2016 presidential election used technology for campaigning, and what it tells us about its democracy.

Methodologically, I adapted an ethnographic approach that has become popular in political campaign studies: to study campaigns by (partially) embedding within them (see good examples by Eitan Hersh[3] and Daniel Kreiss[4]). For my study, I use network ethnography. This involves creating a network map of a target group before starting the fieldwork. That is, instead of using snowball sampling, the researcher is able to independently identify the most important actors in a network and focus on them during fieldwork. The current research allows me to integrate my various interests in Political Communication, Technology and Society, and African Studies.

More generally, I am interested in how elite communication strategies are influenced by, and influence, polarization, especially during election campaigns across different countries. Clientelistic and ethnic politics in SSA thrive on an ethnically polarized citizenry, and similar trends are becoming visible in older democracies in Europe and the United States. It is very plausible that as climate change exacerbates resource scarcity in the coming years, clientelism will flourish on polarization, and would become an even greater problem for democracies around the world. As this process unfolds, it is important to understand the mechanism behind it, and the role digital media technologies play.

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Beyond my primary focus on politics, I am also interested in why and how people adopt products for everyday use, and the implications for them.

Fundamentally, I subscribe to the theory of mutual shaping — we design technologies to achieve specific functions but the technologies also end up shaping our lives in sometimes unintended ways.

Understanding how these processes work is vital to designing technology products that meet human needs while minimizing unintended effects on users and society at large.

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[1] Lindberg, S. I. (2009). Democratization by elections: a new mode of transition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[2] Berman, B., Eyoh, D., & Kymlicka, W. (Eds.). (2004). Ethnicity & democracy in Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

[3] Hersh, E. D. (2015). Hacking the electorate: How campaigns perceive voters. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Kreiss, D. (2012). Taking our country back: The crafting of networked politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.