On December 7, 2016, Ghana passed yet another democratic test when it conducted what has been described as the best organized general elections in the country’s history. The elections was to choose a new President and 275 members of parliament.
From the tech-based systems deployed by some media houses that enabled their collation and projections of results, through the Electoral Commission’s engagement with citizens via social media, to how political parties tracked their numbers before the final and official declaration, and with thousands of election observers using tech to observe and report happenings from all over Ghana; a major feature of the 2016 poll was how technology took center stage of the entire democratic process by almost every key stakeholder, citizens inclusive.
The seeming success of the role of technology did not come without its own difficulties and the details of this took center stage at the Technology Salon asking “How Did Technology Impact Ghana’s Elections?” hosted by Penplusbytes at the New Media Hub on December 20, 2016. This post-elections Salon was held to discuss the extent to which technology changed the face of Ghana’s 2016 general elections including a discussion on challenges and successes as well as the way forward.
To do this, representatives from various elections stakeholder partner organisations who were involved at different levels of the electoral process were brought together to lead the discussions. The lead discussants for this Salon were:
- Bako Mohammed of the Ghana Police Service who played key roles as part of the National Elections Security Task Force,
- James Afedo of the Communications department of the Electoral Commission of Ghana (EC),
- Nana Addo, Social Media Manager of MG Digital, and
- Kwami Ahiabenu II, Executive Director of PenPlusBytes who also doubled as the Moderator of the event.
The last Tech Salon of the year also recorded the rich representation of the media, civil society, academia, technologists and International organisations which included, the USAID, Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), Coalition of Democratic Elections Observers (CODEO), Blogging Ghana, Multimedia Ghana Limited, Ashesi University and the US Embassy on Ghana.
Courting the tech experiences of the key discussants, Mohammed Bako took participants through its own technology – driven monitoring mechanism during the elections. He said the Ghana Police Service, with support from partner organisations such as Penplusbytes and BoggingGhana’s Ghana Decides project, deployed an effective and efficient Social media tracking centre that monitored online activities and issues around elections, picking up, in real time, posts and comments that had security implications which helped in policing the entire electoral process.
According to him, the Police service, contrary to public perceptions fuelled by an earlier threat to shut down social media, is not anti-social media. According to him, the Police service was in constant consultation with other stakeholders to ensure the tool was used responsibly by citizens and not to spread false news and other sensitive information that would heighten tension and security concerns. “We took caution which eventually fed into our strategy on how to better use technology to police the process successfully,” he said.
The EC’s James Afedo, on his part, gave a brief Background of the Electoral Commission’s perceived negative posture towards the media in general, social media, information flow etc. He said the Commission, prior to December 7th had been deliberately bastardized by people who were expected to have known better; a situation which became untenable after the special voting exercise. In his view, the Electoral Commission’s ability to have come out successfully should be duly credited to them.
Responding to the question of what has changed in terms of the use of tech and social media from previous elections, James Afedo said, it had become apparent that there was going to be a brutal use of social media during the elections. “This informed the Commission’s decision to change their narrative to alter public perception about its work, adopting social media interactions as a key strategy,” he added.
Describing the 2016 elections as the best ever conducted by the EC, he said the EC’s voter education video series was very well received; reiterating the EC’s resolve to use technology (especially mobile technology) and social media more extensively to engage and expand their civic education activities. He also cautioned against the irresponsible use of tech tools and social media going into future elections.
The social media manager of MG Digital, in providing some perspectives from the media’s view point explained that the EC generated much interest on social media this past election than any other. “There was a huge leap in interest in the use of social media prior and during elections 2016 by all the major stakeholders including the political parties, their candidates and followers, and the EC” – Nana Addo.
He recounted that the elections had generated a fierce sense of competition on virtual space among industry players which gave birth to some ingenuity and innovative ways to cover the process. He was however quick to add that this also took a tow on the accuracy of the kinds of information being put out by the media in many instances.
The issue of credibility, at this point, drew sharp input from other participants. “We don’t sell speed; we sell credibility,” Asamoah Boahen, a media consultant in warning to the media to value their credibility in the long run rather than the rush to put out news first. He reminded them that the quality of their brands is subject to the accuracy of the information put out and not the speed and one must be careful so as to not further publish and circulate fake news.
The consensus of the Tech Salon forum was that social media, as anticipated by many played an important role in the electoral process but not without its attendant challenges to which efforts has to be made to minimize in future exercise.
Among the various political parties, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) mastered social media engagement during the 2016 campaign; deploying what forum participants described as an impressive tech mechanism that allowed them to call almost accurately, the elections outcome in their favour. The EC’s James Afedo remarked that “if a political party could master such sophistication, then perhaps the EC can only do better with its own tech strategies going forward.”
Gary Al-Smith, a journalist with the Multimedia Group Limited, in summing up his thoughts on the the prospects of elections coverage for the Ghanaian media, retorted in certain confidence that there’s enough indication from the experiences of the last elections which shows that Ghana 2020 elections will be commercialized by the media. “Media houses, will leverage the interest that Ghanaian elections attracts and start selling its election themed programmes.”
Penplusbytes, as a civic tech organization, developed several platforms including a Social Media Tracking Centre (SMTC) that supported a free and fair Ghana 2016 elections. The organisation fact-checked political campaigns and collated data from social media and SMS reports to track election irregularities, fraud and outbreaks of violence. These information, collected in real time, were shared with the Electoral Commission and the National Elections Security Task Force, enabling more rapid response when was most needed.
The Tech Salon event was organised to bring stakeholders to interact and share their elections related tech experiences in a stock-taking fashion.