The Battle of Hashtags: Political Astroturfing in Ghana

By AFI BOTA POBEE

In Ghana, election years are characterized by mammoth rallies by the two main political parties, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC). With Covid-19 still in the picture, this has changed as large crowds are not allowed to gather.

Social media is however a huge tool and it seems it’s going to play an important role in this year’s election. Already, we have had a number of hashtags with #4More4Nana and #JohnMahama2020 mostly making the rounds on social media.

Events took quite an interesting turn when the NDC announced Prof. Jane Nana Opoku Agyemang as running mate of NDC Flagbearer John Mahama. It seemed that the announcement of Prof. Opoku Agyemang as the first Vice Presidential candidate of a major political party got a lot of gender activists excited with the #Iamwithher trending days after her reveal. Some members of the popular feminist group Pepperdem Ministries declared support for Prof. Jane Opoku Agyemang and by extension the NDC in the 2020 polls. The opposition immediately started a #Itshimnother campaign on the day she was officially introduced to the public in a bid to point out that even though the good Professor has been said to have sterling qualities, the running mate the flagbearer of the NDC was problematic. This hashtag drew a lot of interesting comments from social media most of which pointed a desperation.

On Friday August 14, #JohnMahamaIsWicked started trending on Twitter with tweets from accounts mostly associated with the NPP. The NDC has also previously launched parallel hashtags such as #NanaIsCorrupt hoping to smear the NPP flagbearer and current President.

Hashtag activism, or in this case, Political Astroturfing in particular; is a centrally coordinated disinformation or smear campaign in which participants pretend to be part of a genuine grassroots movement while in actual fact;  it is centrally orchestrated seems to be taking hold.

While some studies have shown that political astroturfing has shown little effect on the political behaviour of electorates, happenings during the 2016 US elections point to the fact that, there is a danger where there are fake accounts whipping up sentiments to stir up misinformation and this poses a threat to democracy everywhere.

In a 2019 report by Gadjanova and others, it was indicated the NPP executed a collective and targeted social media campaign strategy in the 2016 elections while the NDC had a less efficient team. Many have pointed to the well oiled social media machine of the NPP as a contributory factor in the 2016 elections.

The NDC, realizing the potential of social media has since maintained that structure. The party has at least one social media communications officer at every level of the party structure (from the national office down to the regional and constituency offices).

In the Ghanaian situation, while there seems to be a centrally coordinated campaign aimed at discrediting the opposing political parties, it seems that the people involved in these campaigns are indeed grassroots people. The report by Gadjanova and colleagues indicated that “By mid-2019, they also had a “social media army” of over 700 people on small allowances. The fact that these “social media communicators” are recruited on the basis of their vocal support for the NPP online – as well as the other potential opportunities that come from being a visibly effective party activist – also encourages others (who are not on an allowance) to actively promote the party and attack their opponents on social media.” Referring to the NPP

Already, the abundance of hashtags in relation to the NDC including #RescueMission, #JohnandJane and #JM2020 as opposed to the more dominant #4More4Nana makes it appear that a social media strategy has not been fine tuned by the NDC. 

As with political astroturfing, there is also the goal of discrediting opposing parties which false and inaccurate information. While this  is common with both parties, there is also a reliance on facts that’s public knowledge and using newspaper clippings as well as screenshots of online news stories to back claims.

In addition, the presence of several fact-checking sites has led to  the exposure of overstated and misleading achievement claims. A recent example was when Vice President Dr. Bawumia made a set of 50 claims over why the NPP was better than the NDC.

So it seems that the impending election campaign will be heavily run on social media and it’s going to be a battle of hashtags. We are excited to be following this and we are interested in seeing how this is going to affect our democracy.

It remains to be seen if this current battle of hashtags can tilt a floating voter. Only the December 2020 election results will tell.

References

Keller, F. B., Schoch, D., Stier, S., & Yang, J. (2020). Political Astroturfing on Twitter: How to coordinate a disinformation Campaign. Political Communication37(2), 256-280.

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