Civil society organisations, social media and capacity-building: Why we need to support CSOs operating in restrictive environments

While the turn of the century saw many developed and developing countries in Africa enjoying civic freedoms, more recently, the trend is one of restricting and limiting civic space.

This blog highlights some of the findings of research I undertook with civil society organisations across East and Southern Africa, where public spaces for debate are rapidly closing.

How are restrictions being imposed?

In some contexts, closing civic space means enacting legislation directly aimed at civil society organisations and their activities, restrictions on freedom of association, freedom of expression or freedom of assembly.

This could mean actively changing laws to ensure greater barriers for civil society organisations.

In many countries, for example, the requirement to register as a non-governmental organisation (NGO) or civil society organisation (CSO) is now being used to limit the work of these organisations if they are critical of the government in any way.

Other legislation is less direct in its restriction of civil society organisations, but equally damaging.

Laws that limit the use of social media for example or that target journalists, further restrict the ability of organisations to openly critique poor governance practices.

Also worrying are reports of indirect challenges to civic space that are often targeted directly at activists, journalists, academics and other individuals.

This could include, for example, the tactic being employed by repressive African states to shut down the internet or mobile communication platforms (such as WhatsApp) when levels of criticism need to be controlled.

Additionally, many governments in Africa are taxing social media users in an effort to deter citizens from going online and limiting freedom of expression.

Civil society organisations

Social media to the rescue?

As the space for traditional media is restricted, civil society regard social media as a space where they can better control their own content, have more direct access to stakeholders and citizens, and use the power of prominent individuals to draw attention to issues.

Social media give CSOs the agency to control their communications and advocacy.

This is particularly important because it allows CSOs to control their messages and even set the agenda for social, human rights and development issues, which is often limited with traditional media.

My research has shown that social media provides CSOs with a number of advantages over traditional media.

In the African context, where traditional media often require financial persuasion to write about development issues, social media provides a mostly-free, highly targeted and relatively limitless opportunity to engage with audiences and citizens locally and globally.

Direct access to diverse audiences with targeted messages but at little cost seems almost too good to be true.

In addition, CSOs are using highly prominent, independent individuals to promote development issues and raise awareness about advocacy campaigns.

What comes out strongly from the research is that social media has given participants some agency in their communications and advocacy which was limited with traditional media.

This is particularly important in contexts where agency and advocacy are restricted because it allows CSOs to control their messages and perhaps even set the agenda for accountability issues.

The reality is that social media does go some way in offering opportunities for speaking out in contexts where traditional media are restricted.

Civil society organisations

It’s not all good news

Unfortunately, while social media does offer great potential for development work in restricted spaces, it does also require strategic planning, pro-active utilisation and thinking ahead – perhaps something that many CSOs are not very good at.

When asked whether they had a specific communications strategy for the use of social media, research participants were almost equally divided between those that did have a strategy and those that did not.

It seems that social media is being heralded as a key element of civic space, but civil society is as yet unsure of how to maximise its potential.

This potential has to include a strong understanding of the risks of exposing individuals who are too prominent on social media, thus, risking repressive retaliation by the state or by interest groups and big business that have the resources to push back in multiple ways, including through social media.

What can CSOs do?

What is further required from civil society beyond their own strategy for using social media in closing civic spaces is to also begin to understand and predict the backlash by states of this emerging platform.

It is clear that states across the region are tapped into the potential of social media and have already begun to clamp down on social media use either through legislative restrictions or more crude internet shutdowns and social media taxes.

What civil society require are further strategies for overcoming these restrictions and better use of all media to ensure civic space is able to perform and promote human rights and development.

 Find out more about how HAD builds the capacity of civil society organisations

 Find out more about the research HAD conducts

Written by Dr. Vanessa Malila

Research & Development Officer

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