Facebook in Africa
Chad-born youngsters in Paris come into contact with youngsters actually in Chad via Facebook: it would be difficult to find a better way to demonstrate the possibilities social media offer for people scattered across the world by war. Mirjam de Bruijn has been awarded a Vici grant for a study of the impact of social media in Africa.
‘Social fabric: that’s what it's about’
What is the social structure like in a repressed country and how can mobile telephony and social media cause it to change? This is what De Bruijn wants to be able to explain with her Vici grant of EUR 1.5 million for five years of research. Her focus is on the regions south of the Sahara that face large-scale disruption due to conflict and chaos, with refugees flooding across the borders and from within the area. According to De Bruijn, ‘If there are divisions in a country, you will also see contrasts within families, both political and religious. That reinforced the fragmentation of a population. Add to this modern means of communication, and a new dynamic arises.’
‘Egypt is the trigger’
For De Bruijn the trigger was the Egyptian Spring, during which the population received information from all corners of the globe via nationals who had been forced to flee. De Bruijn says, ‘As well as being able to phone and text sing the newest mobiles, Africans can also access the Internet. I’m curious about how the African political elite make use of this in a conflict situation and how the people react at local level.’
‘How are social media used in practice?’
De Bruijn wants to know what the role of journalists is when it comes to news provision. ‘Does news from outside influence how Africans feel about their regime and themselves? Sixty percent are younger than 30 and many of these young people can be found roaming around without work in an agrarian society. Some of them return to the countryside once they have completed their studies but others hang around on the Internet. Political parties pay for their Internet access for their own political gain.’
‘What is happening there is exciting’
De Bruijn is looking at the man on the street and at farmers and teachers, ‘How do these young Africans experience oppression? They are becoming aware of their surroundings and are beginning to wonder who they are. This search for identity has consequences for group formation and social change.These youngsters could be mobilised: for revolution or conversely to strengthen community ties, as is the case in Cameroon.'
As an anthropologist De Bruijn combines history, communication studies, conflict studies and social geography with fieldwork in the Central African Republic, Chad, Cameroon and part of Nigeria. The study includes different population groups in towns, refugee areas and the countryside. The result will be a documentary, and congresses and workshops in Europe and Africa are also part of the project. Although she is now part of a prestigious Vici group to which the Rector Magnificus also belongs, her plan is to ‘get my teeth into some research.’ She thinks an interesting new project for five years time would be to combine her results with neuropsychological research into the brain in long-term crises.
(27 February 2012)