Social Media and Policy: A Case Study-Uganda

The following post is a functional draft of the 4th of 5 case studies in my series on government social media presence and policy outcomes.   For the case studies on Ecuador, Georgia, and Iran, please click here, here, and here.

I. Brief on Uganda

In the initial regional analysis, Uganda was chosen as a case study because of a dramatic fall in poverty continuing through the creation of its government social media accounts.  Uganda accounts also make it onto two “top ten” 2017 Sub-Saharan Africa lists: for number of tweets (@UgandaMediaCent, 4th) and number of followers (@KagutaMuseveni, 7th).

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Despite recent progress, Uganda is ranked 163rd in the world on the Human Development Index, much lower than any previous case study subjects.  Internet penetration is relatively low as well.  According to We Social, 44% of the 43.6 million Ugandans are internet users.[1] Only 6% are active social media users, up 12% since January 2017.

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Facebook is the most popular platform by far.  Less than 10% of the population uses Twitter.  According to the 2016-2017 Afrobarometer survey, 52% of Ugandan adults in 2016 and 2017 got their news from the radio every day, while 15% got it from TV, 3% from newspapers, 7% from the internet, and 8% from social media (20% of urban Ugandans).

II. Statistical Analysis

For statistical analysis methodology information, please view the explanation in the Ecuador case study.  Neither group of statistics, outcome and voting indicators, have a sufficient sample sizes to allow statistical analysis (minimum n=8), so it must be excluded from this case study.

III. Background

Uganda is rated partly free by the Freedom House, both overall (37/100 where 100 is most free, an improvement over 2017).  Opposition, civic groups, and independent media are present and active, though the government’s use of restrictive laws, arrests, and intimidation limits free speech. Private behavior, like sexuality, is also regulated and policed. However, 80% of Ugandans say they are somewhat or completely free in Uganda.

In 2017, the Freedom House rated the press in Uganda “not free” (58/100 where 100 is least free). Critical journalists are harassed and media and platform access is sometimes restricted, including a social media ban during the 2016 election as a “security measure.”  Almost half of Ugandan adults (45%) say the media has somewhat or much less freedom investigate, report on, or criticize the government today compared to a few years ago, but 77% agree that “the government should have the right to prevent the media from publishing things that it considers harmful to society.”

When the government can’t prevent, it can attack.  During 2011 anti-government protests, President Museveni called foreign media “enemies of Uganda’s recovery” and continued, “and they will have to be treated as such.”  The information minister echoed that the press was inciting violence, using language to undermine the protestors themselves as well as the media, and claimed there would be amendments to control journalistic “enemies of the state.” Activists were charged with treason, as opposition leaders have been before.  The 2013 Public Order Management Act was eventually signed into law to control public events like protests.

At a May 2018 event with media executives, Museveni blamed the media for distorted stories and a lack of concern for Ugandan problems, saying that the media’s role is to “study and properly diagnose the problems and dangers Africa faces, [and] disseminate information to our people…”  The Uganda Media Centre, one of the accounts analyzed for this case study, is used to monitor journalistic activities, including accrediting foreign journalists and monitoring social media to identify critical posts.

While 60% of Ugandans say they have somewhat or much more freedom to talk about politics today than a few years ago, some also say government intrusion is necessary. 49% agree the government should be able to monitor private communications “to make sure people are not plotting violence,” a policy which may end up being supported by Chinese technology.  At the May media meeting, Museveni put media on the front line combating social media’s fake news and “hate messages”- “you must bring discipline to your systems.”  In the past he has described social media as a “pathway of lies.”

The administration’s messages and policies seem to have been effective at pushing Ugandans away from social media.  At the same time, Ugandans are active in and supporting their communities IRL.  30% are active members of voluntary associations or community groups, 75% have attended a community meeting in the last year, 53% have gotten together with others to “raise issues,” 40% have worked with their community to request action from the government (compared to the 18% who have contacted the media), and 82% voted in the 2016 election and 28% worked for a candidate or party.

Public actions reflect public belief. 65% agree that “it is more important for citizens to be able to hold the government accountable, even if that means it makes decisions more slowly” compared to 33% who prefer “to have a government that can get things done, even if [citizens] have no influence over what it does.”

However, critical citizens have been known to be punished for holding the government accountable, as in the case of academic and activist Stella Nyanzi. Calling the president names on Facebook could land you with an arrest for “cyber harassment.” Both Nyanzi and her supporters have used hashtags and social media to critique government actions, but recent protests have had mixed results.  For example, on- and off-line pressure helped get a controversial social media use tax reviewed, but not repealed.

President Museveni has been president of Uganda since 1986, and last year Parliament removed the constitutional presidential age limit, allowing him to run for reelection for the rest of his life.  This is despite public opinion: in 2016-2017, Ugandans believed a president should serve 2 terms in office maximum (74%) and 3/4 agreed the age limit should be maintained.  Protests against the change resulted in dozens of arrests.  Regardless, almost half of Ugandans are fairly or very satisfied with the way democracy works in Uganda (47%), and only 6% of Ugandan adults claim to have participated in a demonstration or protest in the last year.

This is in part because the president is generally trusted, more than Parliament (63% “somewhat” or “a lot” vs. 51%) and opposition parties (35%) and 70% approve or strongly approve of his job performance in 2016, compared to only 51% of their member of Parliament.  At the same time, during his long hold on power his administration has helped contribute to an electoral atmosphere of doubt and fear.

While 77% of Ugandans say they personally have somewhat or much more freedom to join any political organization they want today than a few years ago, they also say opposition parties now have less freedom to speak, hold rallies, or criticize the government (58%).  Gatherings can be aggressively policed in line with the Public Order Management Act, which has been used against opposition groups.  47% of Ugandans say opposition candidates are a least sometimes prevented from running for office.  In the last 2 presidential elections, opposition groups have protested Museveni’s landslides, claiming actions from intimidation to vote-buying.

But 34% of Ugandans say the 2016 election was completely fair, while 21% say it was not and 39% concede that it had problems.  At the same time, 30% say they personally fear “becoming a victim of political intimidation or violence” during election campaigns “a lot,” and 71% say they fear becoming a victim at least a little bit. Answering who is the most feared perpetrator of that violence, most Ugandans say ruling party leaders and supporters (16%), opposition party leaders and supporters (16%), and security agents (15%).

Despite domestic political disruption, Uganda is relatively peaceful, and several long-lived conflicts in the region have been at least quieting down.  In 2011, the deadly Lord’s Resistance Army militia was “rolled back” through a US-supported effort.  The now suppressed group was born in Uganda and raped, robbed, kidnapped, murdered, and mutilated civilians in the region since 1988.  Similarly, the once roiling, devastating conflict in the Congo simmers, while in South Sudan a long war has just ended with a peace agreement.

These conflicts pushed a surge of refugees into Uganda from neighboring countries.  They have formed the one of the largest refugee settlements in the world, although there is some debate on the true size of the refugee population.  While their presence, the international aid they draw in, and the open-door refugee policies that brought them there are helping the Ugandan economy and perceptions of the country abroad, the refugees themselves can face poverty and violence in the camps.  At the same time, life in Uganda can be more peaceful, profitable, and free than the lives they left behind.

Gender in Uganda, however, can still be a barrier, impacting all aspects of an individual’s economic life: work, home, even access to mobile services.  In the 2015 Gender Inequality Index rankings, Uganda placed 163rd of 188, and the gender gap could be hurting the country economically.  However, 86% of Ugandans say the government is doing fairly or very well “promoting opportunities and equality for women” and 80% say women’s equality and treatment is better or much better than it was a few years ago. 80% also say that men and women have equal opportunities to earn an income and to get a paying job and only 15% say they have been personally discriminated against based on their gender in the last year.

Well-managed returns on Uganda’s oil production present the opportunity to invest in infrastructure, address systemic inequalities, provide services to develop human capital, manage the country’s debt, and ensure long term growth.  However, country’s long history of corruption has been a burden on doing business and public project management in the country.

Uganda has already seen the consequences of slow growth, which led to a rise in the poverty rate since 2013.  However, despite the more recent slowdown, Uganda’s economy has been steadily growing for decades and is expected to continue to improve.  In the Ugandans’ own estimation, the overall economy in 2017 can be described as very or fairly bad (54% compared to 36% fairly or very good), and 58% say it has gotten worse or much worse in the last year.  67% say the government is doing fairly or very badly at improving living standards for the poor, 74% say the same of creating jobs, and 80% do of lowering inequality.

IV. Account Analysis

For details on the methodology used in this section, please see here.

I was only able to view back to May 30th on the @UgandaMediaCent account’s page.  So, unlike the other accounts where I worked backwards, coding 50 tweets from April 30th back, I used May 31st, the first date within that timeframe that I could view all the tweets posted during that day for all three accounts, final date for Uganda data set and worked forwards.

There are 3 active, verified Ugandan government accounts in the Twiplomacy data set: @KagutaMuseveni, the personal account of the president; @StateHouseUg, the institutional presidential account; and @UgandaMediaCent, the institutional account of the media center, committed to “caus[ing] positive factual public awareness of Uganda.” All 3 tweet entirely in English.

Name Creation Total Tweets Followers Following Tweets/day Since Creation Interaction Rate
KagutaMuseveni 27 MAR 2010 2,666 414,283[2] 21 1 .04%
StateHouseUg 27 MAY 2011 2,929 41,497 33 1 .04%
UgandaMediaCent 26 OCT 2011 17,697 90,473 137 9 .01%

The president’s personal account is the most popular, which is possibly connected to its overall tone of positivity and community-building.  53% of his tweets are for community-building, most often among Ugandans and with a focus on inter-religious peace. Almost half his tweets mention community events, compared to only 16% mentioning government functions.

Despite the focus on peace and community, when a NRM, the president’s party, member of parliament and his bodyguard were assassinated, the president early-on implied the death was politically motivated and began pointing fingers at his opposition.

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Investigations have yet to validate the suspicion.

In his tweets, encouraging messages allude to the president and his regime being Uganda’s perpetual solution for everything from war, celebrated with an annual Heroes Day, to economics, making anything less than full-throated support unpatriotic.

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The “we” of his tweets may mean Ugandans as a nation but it could easily be just the NRM.  He uses the assassination to shape the narrative around his own agenda and paint the NRM not as multi-generational strongmen but underdogs, justifying additional “security” measures.

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The State House shares some of the messages as the president’s personal account, with less of the personalization. It supplements and promotes that account, mentioning @KagutaMuseveni in 9 in 10 tweets, quoting him frequently,

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posting pictures,

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and tweeting reworded @KagutaMuseveni tweets.

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While sharing some tone and purpose, the State House account is a shift away from the president’s personal account.  A quarter of its tweets are community-building, but the bulk are informing (59%).  20% mention community functions, but most (67%) mention government functions.  In some ways, it has more in common with the Uganda Media Centre account than @KagutaMuseveni.

The Media Centre mentions many of the same issues at the same rate as the State House account: 35% of State House tweets mention economic topics, while 34% of the Media Centre’s do.  Infrastructure? 20% versus 24%.  Same goes for events, with the Media Centre mentioning government functions in 64% of tweets to 67% of the State House’s.

But the tone shifts further away from @KagutaMuesveni’s personal community-building, although @UgandaMediaCent still services his agenda.

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74% of the tweets are informing, 48% simply reporting stories or facts.  They more often address or mention other governments or governmental bodies (62% vs. 29% and 24%).

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As you might expect, the Media Centre account tweets and retweets also mention the media more frequently, sometimes to get attention for stories,

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or to warn against fake news or the risks of social media.

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Comparing each accounts’ MentionMapp, the president’s shows a mixture of international and domestic connections: India’s prime minister; Zambia; and the BRICS Summit ;”#TheGoldenHeart,” “Dancehall & Reggae Performing Artist;” a former Ugandan prime minister, who is connected to several Uganda media accounts; and his wife.

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The State House shares a connection with Narendra Modi, but otherwise is more connected to Ugandan accounts, like the Ministry of Finance and the NRM party, and issues, like the State of the Nation address and the budget, than international ones.

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The Media Centre mention map has more and stronger connections than the other maps, as it has the highest following to follower ratio.  Its media connections also share connections with the Ugandan National Environmental Management Authority.  Other links have to do with the country’s growth, from electronic services to “green growth” to the communications director at Coca-Cola Africa.

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Account Average Likes Average retweets Average comments Primary Type Most RT’d account Most mentioned account Most mentioned policy subject Number of days
KagutaMuseveni 230 38 59 O (100%) N/A JanetMuseveni (100%) Economic (21%) 9
StateHouseUg 86 18 29 O (94%) KagutaMuseveni (67%) KagutaMuseveni (90%) Economic (35%) 11
UgandaMediaCent 21 2 10 O (76%) GCICUganda, KKCAUG (30% each) OfwonoOpondo (47%) Education (28%) 7

The accounts are strategically and administratively linked.  They share similar content, but in different ways. The personal presidential account is more personal and focused on community-building.  The State House account has similar audiences and objectives, but focuses more on the president himself.  The Media Centre mentions a wider range of events, accounts, and activities to paint the picture of a Uganda that is moving forward.

Although much of all three account’s messages are for community-building among Ugandans, celebrating national successes, highlighting improvements, and acknowledging community events, they are not written where most Ugandans in the country will see them or in a language that speaks to them.  The most common mother languages are Luganda (22% total), Runyankole (13%), and Ateso (12%), and they are also the most-spoken at home (28%, 12%, and 11% respectively). Taken together, the accounts are more an official image of Uganda than an authentic one.

There is a clear governmental focus on the appearance of development and on attributing that development to the president himself.  Rather than shy away from his controversially long tenure, the accounts’ tweets embrace it, making him simultaneously the warrior-hero and eternal guiding-hand.  His story is Uganda’s story, because he has been there since Uganda as we know it has.  He made it what it is, so every paved road and child with clean drinking water is tied to him too.

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V. Discussion and Conclusion

There are a lot of hurdles between Ugandans and their government online.  To communicate they need to overcome electricity, hardware, and connectivity issues; they need to be willing to speak up in an environment where they have seen critics punished; and they may need to find ways to work with or bypass bans and taxes.

As observed in the Iranian case study, the language the government and its representatives choose to speak shapes the context and content of their messages.  Only 2% of urban Ugandans, and 0% of rural, speak English, the primary language of their government and its social media, as their “mother tongue” and only 2% of the adult population overall speaks English at home.  Social media and technology generally represent opportunities for preserving and communicating native Ugandan languages and traditions, but certain common languages are seen as bridges to better opportunities, which may be why the government uses English to communicate with the Ugandan population.  However, another possibility is that the intended audience is not Ugandans in Uganda, but the diaspora or foreign citizens.

As highlighted earlier, the accounts paint a development-centric picture of the country, which could indicate the accounts are being used for advertising and strengthening public relations.  However, by highlighting, for example, individual paved roads or local election winners, the accounts seem to be communicating directly with the citizens most effected, the ones who would find that kind of information relevant.  But then the question becomes: if they are speaking to Ugandans, why do it on Twitter in English?

The answer probably lies in how those same institutions are using other media.  Just from the tweets, it is clear they are using Instagram and WordPress as well, and understanding the full suite of communication tools and strategies may help illuminate how Twitter specifically fits in.

The image of Uganda as the Ugandan government accounts on Twitter paint it is only somewhat resonating with the Ugandan people.  Ugandans are attentive and active for the future of their country, and they are willing to work together and use the tools at their disposal to shape their government.  As noted by the Freedom House, it is the vibrance of this activism that makes Uganda as free as it is.  To some extent, what may be considered internationally as government shortfalls or overreach reflect many popular opinions in Uganda: there is not an overwhelming rejection of surveillance, a widespread feeling of missed opportunity for women, or broad distrust in the government.  At the same time, citizens expect the government to live up to campaign and democratic promises, which it largely has not.

[1] Estimates range from 7.7 and 19 million users.

[2] Equivalent of less than 1% of Uganda population

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