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Mobiles, Social Media and Democracy


The Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) and the ICT4D Collective and UNESCO Chair in ICT4D at Royal Holloway, University of London convened a session on Mobiles, Social Media and Democracy (#SocMed4Dem) on 15th March at the ICTD2012 conference hosted by Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

This began with a debate on the motion that This house believes that the use of mobile supported social media is an effective means of promoting democracy.  Breakfast planning, led to a slight change of schedule!  So, the session began with Mario Maniewicz (Chief of Department, Enabling Environment and E-applications, ITU) providing an overview of some of the issues surrounding this complex subject.  Then the debate began in earnest.  Katrin Verclas (Co-Founder and Editor of MobileActive.org) set the ball rolling arguing vehemently in favour of the motion, to be followed by a sound rebuttal by Adam Salkeld (Head of Programme, Tinopolis).  Then the real challenge – both for me and the audience!  To balance things up, I filled in the gap by seconding the motion in favour – even though I would have preferred to speak against the motion.  Half way through, when I was arguing that anarchy is the only true form of democracy, I suddenly realised that one might say things that one does not necessarily actually mean when one is debating.  My short intervention should have had a health warning!  And the debate concluded with a brilliant tour-de-force by Alan Fisher (Senior Correspondent, Washington DC, al Jazeera).  After numerous interventions from the floor, the final vote (including contributions by Tweets) was 21 in favour and 19 against!  Thanks to Caitlin Bentley so much for video streaming the debate and managing the Twitter feed!

After the ‘refreshments’ break, we broke up into small discussion groups, each chaired by one of the speakers, to explore the policy implications of four of the most important themes to emerge from the debate: access (chaired by Mario), privacy and security (chaired by Katrin), the relevance of historical sociology of technology and democracy (chaired by Adam), and ICTs against democracy: the ‘dark side’ (chaired by Alan).

The mind map below provides a summary of the fascinating discussions as presented in the final closing plenary.

Click on the image for a large sized (readable) version!

Video of the debate

Caitlin Bentley has compiled a ‘story’ of the #SocMed4Dem debate at #ICTD2012 at http://storify.com/cbentl2/mobiles-social-media-and-democracy

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Data on Internet and social media usage


One of the interesting things about the Internet is actually how difficult it is to find out detailed and accurate information about its usage, especially with respect to social media. The International Telecommunications Union does, though, provide some useful high level data.  Given all of the emphasis on the apparent ‘ubiquity’ of Internet use, these provide some very salient reminders that in 2011

  • some 35% of the world’s population use the Internet – which means that 65% still do not!
  • although 45% of Internet users are under 25, 75% of the world’s under-25s still do not use the Internet.
  • there are twice as many mobile-broadband as there are fixed-broadband subscribers across the world

It is not just connectivity, though, that matters.  The available bandwidth and speed of connectivity are also crucial.  The following ITU graph (click on image for larger version) thus illustrates the enormous contrasts that still exist in this respect:

Whereas more than 95% of fixed broadband connections in South Korea have advertised speeds of ≥ 10 Mbit/s, some 98% of connections in Ghana, Venezuela and Mongolia have speeds of ≤ 2 Mbit/s.

Of equal concern is the observation that the least developed countries are being left further and further behind in the race for digital connectivity.  In a striking report on the role of ICTs in the “least developed countries”, the ITU  shows this particularly graphically in the chart below (click on image for larger version), which illustrates the percentages of people who are Internet users:

This shows, for example, that the difference between the percentage of Internet users in the “developed” and the “least developed” countries in 2000 was only about 25 people per 100, whereas by 2010 it had leaped to more than 68 people per 100.  Despite growth in the number of Internet users in the developing countries, they were likewise still 50 people per 100 behind the “developed” countries in 2010.  The differences between rich and poor are thus getting dramatically bigger rather than lessening.

As 2012 gets underway, let us all commit ourselves more strongly than ever before to ensuring that these trends are reversed, and that the world’s poorest and most marginalised are indeed able to benefit from the ICTs that so many people living in the richest countries of the world now take for granted.

One aspect of data on Internet usage that I find particularly frustrating is the difficulty of finding accurate information on social media usage.  This is especially important when there is so much rhetoric about the ways in which such media are transforming social, economic, political and cultural life.  It seems to me that, once again, this may well be true of the world’s richest 10% or so of people, but is scarcely true of the majority!

Facebook, for example, is renowned for how little information it shares, with its statistics page only giving very sparse information about five categories of data, including the ‘fact’ that there are 800 million active users.  But what does “Active Users” mean?  According to Facebook it is people who have returned to the site in the last 30 days, although we are told that half of these (c.400 million) use Facebook every day.  If the world’s population is taken as being ‘approximately’ 6.984 billion, that means that about 1 in 17.46 people are using Facebook every day.  Before we get too carried away with the enormity of this figure, we should recognise that this is only 5.7% of the world’s population, which means that a huge 94.3% of the world’s people do not use Facebook daily!

It is likewise not that easy to find out detailed data from Twitter, although officially some 177 million Tweets were sent on 11 March 2011.  In the above vein, though, it should be noted that this is equivalent to only 1 per every 2.5% of the world’s population (some useful sites providing more comprehensive visual summaries of data on Twitter include MarketingGum and digitalbuzz, although these are becoming rather dated; see also report on CMSWire). In September 2011, Twitter announced that it had 100 million active global users logging in once a month – but again this only represents 1.4% of the world’s population!

When we read about how Facebook and Twitter are going to change the world, we therefore need to think very carefully about whose world, and the kind of world they might create.  To be sure, digital technologies have enormous potential to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised, and the numbers of users of services such as Twitter and Facebook are indeed increasing impressively, but with such low levels of global reach they are not yet the dominant force that many would claim them to be – or indeed some users might like to think they are!  So, how many people have more than 1000 followers on Twitter?!

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