Social Media, a non-event at this year’s World Economic Forum on Africa

Social media was certainly officially present, but not fussed over at the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa which was held in Cape Town, South Africa. Without any specific headline focus on technology, the keynote plenary session kicked off with South African President Jacob Zuma as leaders assessed the rise of emerging markets in “the new global reality”.

While Zuma and others discussed the implications of emerging markets on the future of the world’s economy, Rajiv J. Share from the United States Agency for International Development, USAID, reminded everyone of one critical driver of the emerging markets rise: technology.

When recognised a decade ago for its role in development and growth technology became a theme. That has changed. It is now an unstated assumption.

The recent WEF shows technology and social media in relation to growth and democracy is no longer topical: they are instead premises taken and factored in to the world we are living in as leaders discuss the future and citizens comment along the way.

Twitter, Foursquare and Scribd had a presence the meeting, with a specific social media room also set aside for participants. YouTube sessions and livestreams on Facebook offered real-time access traditionally reserved for journalists. In theory the level of openness would be unprecedented just a few years ago, yet no fuss was made on the accessibility of most scheduled sessions that were available for the world to partake in. Social media access was no longer a benevolent favour granted to non-participants, but part of the way world summits take place.

However, has social media improved democracy and accountability as regards global meetings? There was an evident absence of protests and this year’s World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town — and little coverage overall in the news media of the conference as a whole.

Has engagement moved from protest as a forum for opposition to social media platforms as the alternative for a representing and debating the issues in a significant continental emerging market?

Social media did seem to be the primary source of news source throughout much of this year’s meeting, which on the whole anecdotally appears to have received less coverage than in the past.

Zimbabwe received renewed attention at the closing plenary with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangerai, while a number of tweets also headlined the high tourist potential projected for Africa, illegal Chinese migration and a comment by South Africa’s Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies indicating that as a new addition to the BRICS, his government believes India is as important to China for trade.

The nature of social media meant that for interested readers, a tweet was the headline as the story was the primary YouTube material itself.

In a real sense social media is the new mainstream. No big effort was made to promote the extensive access of social media, nor was the public online access into the meeting’s formal events a cause for attention and marketing by the WEF organising committee.

It’s clear the World Economic Forum, criticised at times for serving simply for the world’s elite to do business, embraced the wide use of social media, even setting aside a room at the conference reserved solely for delegates to interact with those not in attendance.

For critics of the WEF however, perhaps social media’s limitation is simply the inability to uncover the agendas of those private meetings and conference side events that are closed to the media.
It all begs the question: does the promise of social media as a means to engage high level world meetings deliver less than anticipated?

On the morning of the WEF opening session the Daily Maverick stated in its daily email to readers that “as usual, most of the really interesting stuff will be happening on the sidelines or behind closed doors,” adding however that “even so there’ll be plenty of public action until the event wraps up”.

For some it is precisely this recognised public action that can influence what happens outside the public space.

For one, if the United States can pour millions into building platforms to get around firewalls in the Middle East and China, there is evidence social media is more than just an added nicety: like the vote, it is something we are fundamentally starting to believe is to be expected in our relationships to the powers that be.



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