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Key findings
  • Radio remains overwhelmingly the most common source for news in Africa. On average across 18 surveyed countries, two-thirds (67%) of respondents tune in at least a few times a week.
  • Digital media use for news is growing quickly. Between 2014/2015 and 2019/2020, the share of Africans who get news from social media or the Internet at least a few times a week almost doubled, from 22% to 38% across 16 countries included in both survey rounds.
  • Urban residents, better-educated citizens, men, and youth are most likely to use digital media in Africa. While use has increased among other groups as well, demographic gaps in digital media use have remained roughly the same since 2014/2015, and even increased with regard to education.
  • Africans express broad support for the media’s role in fostering government accountability, and majorities support media freedoms in every country except Tunisia. But most Africans support their government’s right to place limits on the dissemination of hate speech, false information, and messages that are insulting to their president.
  • A majority (54%) of Africans see digital media as having mostly positive effects on society, while just one-fourth (25%) see its impact as mostly negative. However, while Africans value social media’s ability to inform and empower citizens, they also see distinct threats in its ability to spread false information and hate speech.
  • Despite these reservations, only about one-third (36%) of Africans endorse government restrictions on access to digital media. Support for unrestricted digital media is highest in Nigeria, Gabon, Cabo Verde, and Côte d’Ivoire, while populations are most skeptical about digital media in Ethiopia, Mali, and Tunisia.

Africa’s media landscape is changing rapidly. Regular reliance on digital sources for news has nearly doubled in just five years, with more than one-third of respondents across 18 countries surveyed reporting that they turn to the Internet or social media at least a few times a week for news. While radio remains the most popular mass medium on the continent due to its accessibility and reach, digital media are reshaping information landscapes, and consequently politics, in remarkable ways.

At the same time, governments’ interactions with media are changing, often in ways that are troubling for advocates of democratic development. Attacks on journalists and media houses are becoming more frequent, and governments are passing new restrictions on who can produce and share content (Alfandika & Akpojivi, 2020; Conroy-Krutz, 2020; RSF, 2020). “Social media taxes” and full or partial Internet shutdowns are increasingly in governments’ toolkits as well (Guardian, 2019; CIPESA, 2019). Leaders often cite real problems, including the spread of false information and hate speech, as justifications for these new regulations, but many people fear that governments are using these threats to stifle press and speech freedoms more broadly.

What do Africans think of these changes? In nationally representative surveys across 18 countries, Afrobarometer finds that people are generally supportive of press freedoms, media’s role as watchdogs over governments, and broad access to digital media for citizenries. They generally see promise in the ability of new technologies to inform and empower. As digital media access continues to rise across demographic groups and in most countries, the possibilities of creating better-educated, more-active populations are exciting.

However, there is also a distinct wariness about these new media. Majorities see them as facilitating the spread of false information and hate speech. And government moves to limit the dissemination of messages deemed undesirable are generally popular. In this way, many Africans seem genuinely ambivalent about these new media landscapes: Most say they want unrestricted digital media while also supporting limits on messages they see as potentially dangerous.

Jeffrey Conroy-Krutz

Jeffrey Conroy-Krutz is an associate professor at Michigan State University and editor of the Afrobarometer Working Papers series.

Joseph Koné

Research associate and finance officer at CREFDI