Saturday, November 26, 2016

Social Media Tracking Centre For Ghana Elections 2016 Ready To Commence Operations

Although there is a lot of activity when it comes to monitoring mainstream media, there is currently only an inefficient manual tracking of trends in social media here in Ghana.

Social media provides the insight and up to the minute information that will be imperative in ensuring a peaceful Ghana Elections 2016. It is because of this gap in efficient data monitoring that Penplusbytes' Flagship "Social Media Tracking Centre" (SMTC) is set to roll out ahead of the December 7 polls.

The SMTC is a system to monitor and respond in real-time to reports emanating from social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. The technology at the middle of  SMTC is the Aggie social media tracking software, developed at Georgia Tech. Aggie is able to present trends grouped around voting logistics, violence, political parties, etc. Penplusbytes will pass the information on to the National Elections Security Taskforce. Through rapid citizen feedback, gathered through social media, problems that may trigger security incidents will be quickly resolved, contributing to a peaceful election.

The centre is to be manned by a core team of tech savvies made up of students from tertiary institutions like the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology and the University of Ghana, Legon as well as staff of Penplusbytes. The team will be monitoring social media for 72 hours non-stop on a rotational basis from 6th to the 8th of December, 2016 which is before, during and after the elections.

Key words that have been categorized into trends and incidents will be tracked in real time on social media platforms and staff will verify these, before producing rapid electoral incident reports to share with diverse electoral stakeholders. Penplusbytes will share its real-time incident reports with the Electoral Commission, National Elections Security Task Force (NESTF), and other election stakeholders for prompt action. A new addition to the software tracking platforms is the SMS short code. All these will be done with embedded representatives in the electoral management and observer control centers.

With funding from the Deutsche Welle (DW) Akademie and the National Endowment for Democracy, this project seeks to promote peaceful, transparent and credible elections in Ghana and support effective and efficient information and knowledge exchange through a strategic and structural engagement of citizens and the electoral management bodies (Electoral Commission and National Elections Security Task Force - NESTF).

According to the executive director of Penplusbytes, Kwami Ahiabenu II, "Technology is playing a key role in Ghana's socio-economic development and its application in the governance sector is no exception. This centre and its activities during the elections is clearly in line with our vision of being the leading institution for promoting good governance using technology."

During the 2012 Ghana elections, new digital technologies were applied by all stakeholders in the elections continuum from the electoral management body, political parties, electoral observers, down to the individual voters.

Given this context, there is no doubt that ICTs is going to be a key factor in the elections and this project will seek to enhance and contribute to the democratic momentum that has already been built over the years.

‘Social media can be used for good’

Participants in a day's forum have expressed the belief that social media can be used positively to promote development and national security.

According to them, social media could be a platform to provide security tip-offs for early-warning alerts to combat crime.

The participants were contributing to the topic: "Social media and peace-building; social media and traditional media", at a public forum on free and responsible use of social media in Accra.

The forum

It was organised by the National Media Commission (NMC) and sought to bring together the participants to brainstorm on finding a framework for setting up policies and guidelines for social media to be responsible, while safeguarding freedom of expression in the country.

Leading the discussion, the Executive Director of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), Mr Sulemana Braimah, said even though social media could be used as a platform to foment trouble, there was the need to look at it from the positive side.

Positive side of social media

"If we look at the positive side of social media, how our national security and officers can rely on social media for tip-offs for early warning alerts, that can be good.

"The solution to hate speech is not shutting down social media; it is about countering whatever the social media put out there," he said.

For his part, a journalist with Citi FM, a local radio station, Mr Bernard Avle, said social media would only be useful if society redefined the rules of what was news, while the traditional media constantly insisted on verifying information from social media before publishing it.

He said social media had "changed the way we work, both for good and bad", explaining that because of the competition of sources, social media had put pressure on traditional media practioners.

Contributing to the topic, a blogger with Blogging Ghana, Ms Kinna Kimani, said social media fed on what the traditional media reported because "we are not in possession of the facts". 

Kenya's example

Presenting a study conducted by Penplusbytes on Kenya's 2013 presidential election, the Executive Director of Penplusbytes, Mr Kwami Ahiabenu II, said the electoral body of that country relied a lot on social media to conduct a highly successful election.

"The electoral management body, which includes the Electoral Commissioner, the police and the security services, were active on social media. They invested heavily on social media," he said, and asked whether the same could be said about Ghana's Electoral Commissioner and the security agencies.

He said even though the Kenyan election was successful, social media churned out hateful and peaceful messages.

"So we are not suggesting that during the elections everybody was behaving well, but at the end of the day, peaceful messages won," he said.

Mr Ahiabenu noted that the Kenyans realised that social media could pose a serious threat to the electoral process and, therefore, invested heavily in social media.

Active monitoring of social media

"Again, one of the key findings that came out from our research was that there was active social media monitoring and when people were putting up certain behaviour that was not within the confines of the law, the security agencies were able to apprehend and act on it.

"Back in Ghana, do we have that capacity to ensure that the electoral management body and the security agencies can have alerts and police such?" he queried.

Wrapping up the discussion, the Executive Secretary of the NMC, Mr George Sarpong, said the EC could gain more if it engaged on social media.

He said while there could be certain concerns about the potential of social media to cause mischief, "it represents a greater platform for utility for change and progress than the fears that we have had".

Fundamental freedoms

In a statement, the UNDP Country Director, Mr Dominic Sam, said the freedom to generate and share information, download and share information through electronic networks, communicate within and across national boundaries were fundamental freedoms which should be protected.

"The responsible exercise of these fundamental freedoms must be protected. The use of such mediums as social media to propagate false information, which if left unfettered can generate tension during an election period, is not a protected right," he said.

The Chairman of the NMC, Nana Kwesi Gyan-Appenteng, welcoming the participants, expressed concern that in recent times, "not a single week passes without a number of fake and malicious social media content being circulated".

He described it as a major worry, explaining that the purpose of the forum was to gather information and recommendations from the participants into a communique.