It is important to note that from 10 April 2016 until the end of November 2016, Chad was partially deprived of Internet services. The government closed down Facebook, WhatsApp, and other specific websites, with the explanation that there were technical problems. None of my informants believed this explanation. These young men and a few women among my informants in N’Djaména had ways to circumvent these restrictive measures, but the majority of the population did not. Accessing VPN services or configuring connections to the Internet providers that permit access to supposedly inaccessible websites can be done only with relatively high-tech telephones. The majority of the telephones in Chad, especially in the interior and smaller cities but also among the majority of the population of N’Djaména, are unable to do this. Hence, people had no access to these social media websites and services. This constituted an important impediment to information flows and communication. Under pressure from the international community, the government finally reopened the Internet (read more here—in French). However, costs are high and access is still limited. Does this also mean, however, that the government is afraid of the Internet and the effects it can have? Does it show the power of the people? ‘La peur a change du camp’ – as a friend and colleague at the University of N’djaména confided to me in May 2015, after the first uprisings took place in N’Djaména.
Following Didier/Croquemort in N’Djaména and beyond made me curious about information, politics, and the formation of opinions. Accessing the Internet is very important for Didier and his friends, both for communication and for information. Originally, the larger research project—of which this research was also a part—questioned the possibility of an Arab Spring in Chad. In the short pamphlet that we published, Didier/Croquemort stated that an Arab Spring is impossible because people are poor and also Internet connectivity is too low. However, the N’Djaména protests that occurred from March 2015 onwards do suggest a relationship between Internet connectivity and increased political consciousness and action.
In recent publications, a correlation between increase in Internet use and increase in political consciousness is suggested (Iwilade 2013; Vromen, Xenos & Loader 2015; see also Rheingold 2002; Hands 2011; Branch & Mampilly 2015). These authors subscribe to the idea that communication is power. Power has two sides to it: it is not only possessed by ordinary people who can control and force change, but it is also used as a tool by states and government bodies to govern and control (see Castells 2009).
I elaborate on this question in other articles (see De Bruijn 2016a, 2016b; De Bruijn & Lalaye 2016); and, as we described in the post on Android Youth, Internet connectivity also helps social and economic careers. A further elaboration of this question required a better understanding of connectivity in Chad. For this reason, we conducted a survey in N’Djaména in November 2015 on Internet use, access to social media, and political agency.
One important element of this process is the flow of information (Gleick 2011). It seems rather obvious that with increasing connectivity, people will have access to more information. I recall the example that we encountered in 2009 in Mongo in Central Chad, where a young man explained that through his Internet connectivity he could access the news on RFI (Radio France Internationale), which would never have reached him before. This is how he knew much better what happened also in his own country. Information travels through international spheres to enter back into the small city of Mongo, next door to where the news happens.
The spread of information is hence not an individual affair per se. Information can go from one person to others; the spreading of rumours is a very clear example. When I interviewed some youth leaders in N’Djaména, that was indeed the answer to my question about how they made information flow. It would go to a central contact in cities and particular areas, and there the person in question would ensure that the information passed on to others. Hence, connectivity in terms of the Internet as a source of new information is much more than just a matter of having an Internet connection.
Nevertheless, questions about how connections are made and who is connected are relevant.
Connectivity in Chad
In November 2015, we undertook a survey in N’Djaména. The results of the survey confirmed the limited number of people who access Facebook. We covered seven neighbourhoods, selected for their differences in dominant religion and ethnicity. There were a total of 200 respondents, varying in age from 18 to 70. We tried to achieve a balance in gender, though the majority of the interviewees were men. The questions in the survey were composed in such a manner that we would be able to understand if accessing these media would indeed influence the political agency of the people using them.
The survey confirmed the general figures on connectivity in Chad (see the tables below): only 34 of 194 respondents have daily access to social media; and of those, 80% are between 10 and 35 years old. They spend an average of 1000–2000 FCFA (about 1.5–3 €) on their telephones per week. Of this 80%, 56% have a smartphone. Computers are rarely used. Each week, roughly 10% of the 200 respondents follow political discussions through any kind of media, and 25% read political news (i.e. on paper). Those who engage in political discussions on-line constituted 15% of the respondents, and those who actively participate in discussions are most comfortable to do so within closed groups of friends. A substantial number (20%) said they comment, but anonymously. There were 35% of respondents who agreed that they adopt opinions from Facebook exchanges. With regard to their voting attitudes: 21.1% said they would vote, whereas 19.6% said they definitely would not; undecided, to likely, to very likely to vote were 41%. Those who agreed to join a demonstration were 17%, and to sign a petition 30%. Those who were willing to participate in public protests were approximately 20%. And those who used social media responded positively to the question of whether social media helps them to be better informed (77%) and to be a better participant in society (55%). Only roughly 6% were active in terms of posting and commenting in political arguments on Facebook, but 35% said they were passive consumers of political news on Facebook.
Although these results confirm the low Internet access and low digital literacy in general in Chad, they also show how Internet access and Facebook have the ability to change people’s political attitudes. The experience of those who do access Facebook—and, less often, blogs and other social media information flows—is that they become better informed and want to be ‘better’ participants in society. It is then probable that they will be more eager to actively participate in actions to become such participants. It was also clear that those who answered positively on their use of the Internet and social media are primarily urban youth, who have a high education background. However, these people are linked to social and family networks both in the city and in rural areas. News and opinions travel, and as such the impact of the information flows through the Internet and social media can be much more extensive and influential than the results of the survey show.
These figures tell us about the possibilities of connectivity for political participation of Chadian youth, especially (but not only) in cities. Although computers are rarely used, it appears that a substantial proportion of Chadian urban youth owns or has access to a smartphone, a device that is more than sufficient for constant and immediate access to social media. And despite the problems of connecting in general, this youth does its best to connect using VPN-type technologies.
From the survey, it emerges that only a small proportion of social media users get involved in active political participation (e.g. signing a petition, joining a demonstration or a public protest). But the impact of these figures can be better understood if placed in context. As we have learned from our ethnographic research following a few individual youth in N’Djaména and the diaspora, Facebook played a crucial role during the period of protests in Chad that we observed in 2015 and 2016. It was used as a tool to coordinate actions and to spread news. In the news of the youth protests that were reported on Facebook, we find many examples of this. For example, when the student Hassan Daouda Massing was killed in a student protest that was repressed by the police, the news of his death spread unstoppably on the same day, fomenting the rage of students and intensifying their action. In other similar circumstances of youth protests, social media were the only tools for denouncing the abuses of the police towards the arrested protesters, in one case when a video showing the abuses circulated on Facebook.
These examples show that there is an interaction between Facebook activities and protests on the ground. A relatively easily accessible tool like a smartphone with an Internet connection has thus become a primary source for information on political issues and current events for the generation of Chadian youth. We need to do further research on this.