This article examines two apparently contradictory uses of digital media during elections: in 2005, when still nascent digital tools were employed by Ethiopians to contest power in ways that pre-configured tactics later adopted by protesters elsewhere in Africa and globally; and in 2015, when digital publics displayed disenchantment towards an election with a foregone outcome. Relying on a mixed-methods approach, combining interviews with some of the very actors that shaped Ethiopia’s information society and the analysis of more than 3,000 statements posted on Facebook 3 months before and 1 month after Ethiopia’s elections on 24 May, the article offers an empirical examination of this contradiction, and how an authoritarian state has sought to influence online public discursive spaces. The findings suggest interpreting the effervescence of 2005 and the apathy of 2015 not as disjointed examples of active and passive uses of digital media. Especially when read against the background of the protests that erupted in the years following the elections, when digital media were embraced again as tools for mass mobilization, we propose reading the “digital apathy” of 2015 rather as a critique moved towards the fictitious apparatus for political participation erected in 2015, one that concurrently challenges the EPRDF’s hegemonic project, and the obsession of the international community towards elections as a tool for political change.
By Nicole Stremlau, Iginio Gagliardone, Gerawork Aynekulu
Published in a special issue on ‘Rethinking Publics in Africa in a Digital Age’ in the Journal of Eastern African Studies on 20 November 2018
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