Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Social Media is a Double-Edged Sword for Women Politicians in Zambia: Study


By Dr Parkie Mbozi

What is the extent of access to and use of social media among women leaders and leadership aspirants? To what extent are social media effective as tools for activism among Zambian women leaders? Does social media use make or break women leaders’ careers? How influential are social media in positively promoting women leaders?

Social media is an umbrella term encompassing Internet-based applications used for different purposes. The specific apps include, but not limited to, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Snapchat and microblogs (Treem and Leonardi, 2013; Greenwood, Perrin and Duggan, 2016}. The use and popularity of social media technologies have grown exponentially over the last few years and at an incredible pace (Treem and Leonardi, 2013), particularly since the United Nations declared access to and use of the Internet a human right in 2011 (Greenwood, Perrin and Duggan, 2016).

Their growth has fueled interest in how social media affect citizens’ participation in civic and political life and specific areas of activism, such as gender and child rights. Current scholarship cites the Arab Spring in 2011 and the campaigns for political office in 2008 and 2012 by Barack Obama as some of the factors that helped to escalate the interest of social media in these areas (Boulianne, S., 2015). In the next article I will analyse how social media could be credited for the recent electoral victory of Zambia’s 7th President Hakainde Hachilema.

The use of social media suits the description of a double-edged sword; they present both challenges and opportunities to every facet of human life. On one hand, they present the novelty of interactivity, flexibility and customisation, which are associated with Internet-based technologies. On the other hand, they pose risks of abuse, which is associated with all digital and interactive media. Leadership, which is the most important and influential of human institutions, is more challenging than ever before in the face of the intricate nature of social media (Erçetin, and Bisaso, 2016). The challenge is more intriguing when it involves women, given the gender debacle and the established public biases towards women leaders (Erçetin, and Bisaso, 2016).

The above cited questions informed the multi-country study conducted in 2020 under the sponsorship of Hivos, an international humanitarian organization based in Harare, Zimbabwe and The Netherlands. DevCom Consulting Ltd, a consultancy firm which I chair, was hired to undertake the exercise in Zambia. The overall objective or aim of the research was to determine the effectiveness of social media as tools for opening up spaces for women leaders to participate in or aspire for leadership in public administration, politics, and quasi government in Zambia. The study also compared social and online media with traditional media in supporting women’s aspirations in leadership.

The study investigated the opportunities and challenges posed by social media and social network systems to women in leadership and how women have risen to these challenges and opportunities wrought by these technologies. It examined the extent to which social media influences societal dynamics in Zambia, specifically on whether it is an enabler or inhibitor to women’s leadership careers and gender activism. It also investigated and characterised women’s participation on social media and their experiences (positive and negative) with using the social media technologies.

Hundred and eight (108) interviews were conducted with women in or aspiring for leadership positions in public, private, NGO and other sectors. The interviews were supported by an online ethnographic review of social media spaces to ascertain the presence and use of these media by Zambian women leaders in terms of, for instance, number of followers on their Twitter and Facebook (FB) accounts.

Empirical data (from the survey) were triangulated (complimented) with case studies or in-depth interviews with four prominent and leading female social media users; these are: Laura Miti (FB); Linda Kasonde (LinkedIn); Saboi Imboela (FB); and, Brenda Zulu (WebLog or blog). The four women gave account of their experiences (positive and negative) with social media use and, in particular, how they handle negative effects of cyberbullying.

Quantitative (survey) data were analysed using the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS). Testing of hypothesis and relationships was done using Chi-square analysis at 95% significance. The discourse and thematic analysis methods were used to analyse qualitative data.

Major Finding and Conclusions

Access to and use of the Internet and social media

  1. The results of the study are conclusive of mild (one in five women) access to and use of the Internet and social media among the Zambian women in leadership or those aspiring for leadership. Access to and use of social media is hampered by inadequate Internet access and smartphones and poor Internet speed and connectivity.

  2. Use of social media among rural-based women is hampered by structural bottlenecks of slow Internet speed, connectivity problems, cost of Internet bundles and smartphones.

  3. An overwhelming majority of Zambian women leaders access the Internet and social media using data bundles on their phones. This is in line with the global trend and makes smartphone ownership an imperative for increasing social media use among women leaders.

  4. WhatsApp and Facebook are the preferred and most used social media platforms among Zambian women leaders, followed by Instagram and LinkedIn. However, FB commends a comparative advantage in terms of the sizes of ‘followers’ and linkages that the women are connected to individually and collectively. This makes it an ideal choice for creating a critical mass for activism and social mobilization.

  5. Long experience with the Internet and training are essential imperatives for improving social media skills. Likewise, improving income is a critical intervention for improving access to and frequent use of social media access among women in leadership. Financial capacity is particularly critical for use of Facebook, whose primary purpose is achieved through strong linkages and networks and, consequently, costlier.

  6. The results from both the ethnographic and survey studies reveal inadequate use of relevant social media platforms for specific and sophisticated purposes, e.g. activism and social mobilization, through such methods as hashtags.

  7. The study found and documents some classical and creative use of social media among some prominent women for both personal career progression and on national matters. The four case studies documented some of the ‘best’ practices in social media use among prominent women.

  8. The report also highlights the use of social media by two prominent politicians – Princess Kasune and Dora Siliya – to inform the nation that they had tested positive for the dreaded Covid 19 virus and to warn the citizens to take the disease seriously.

Women’s experiences with online gender-based violence

  1. Some women, albeit being in the minority, have experienced abuse of one form or another on social media. It appears that high profile individuals involved in activism and governance issues at national level and those with very active accounts, including all the four profiled in the study, are the most affected.

  2. Facebook is considered the most disruptive online platform. It is also the platform that has the largest audience or followership, which makes it a double-edged sword. Most of the abuses come in the form of negative and demeaning statements, insults, verbal abuse, cyberbullying and hacking of accounts run by women leaders. Saboi Imboela, a renowned Zambian female artiste, human rights activist and now leader of a political parties has been a victim of abuse on social media,

I have been a victim of social media abuse countless times. I have had experiences where I post something on constitutional matters on social media as an activist and politician, and some people who know me as a divorced person will come with personal attacks and say you are just saying that because you don’t have a husband.

  1. Messaging platforms, notably Twitter and LinkedIn, are considered elitist by most of the women leaders. However, they are also regarded as niche platforms by some women in the corporate and civil society spaces, which they use to showcase their profiles and advance a specific agenda. These channels are perceived as more respectable and less prone to verbal abuse.

  2. Most women leaders do not seem to have a clear strategy for dealing with social media abuse. The majority ‘just ignore’ the abuses. Although the study did not probe the reasons for ‘just ignoring’ such abuses, one plausible assumption is that they have no skills for dealing with the situations.

  3. Majority of the women respondents perceive digital spaces to be uneven in favour of men. There is also a strong feeling that social media users deliberately focus on the women’s personality to “divert attention from the truly important societal issues that they raise and to humiliate them”. Therefore, the impact of cyberbullying on women’s participation in public office cannot be under-estimated, especially on a national scale.

Effectiveness and influence of social media

  1. At a personal level, the findings suggest that majority of the women in the study appreciate the positive functionalist role social media particularly towards their enhanced business/entrepreneurial activities, networking and easy of communication and positive self-image. A few believe that they would not be where they are in their careers without social media. The below statements by Saboi sum up the views on benefits from social media at a personal level,

For me, the positives outweigh the negatives of being on social media. I have benefited and achieved quite a lot. Through social media, my music career thrived. I have been able to market my music through social media. You can only underestimate the power of social media at your own cost. I got a job at UNDP because of my social media activism which was acknowledged by the UN agency in Zambia. Of course, I qualified for the job, but social media exposed me to the opportunity.

  1. At a broad national level, social media are generally perceived to be influential and helpful in improving the situations and lives of women and for advocacy on a broad range of national issues. However, the actual use of these media for activism and for driving real change and livelihood transformation has been marginal and their full potential not fully exploited.

  2. Majority of the respondents perceive social media to be more accessible, effective and influential than traditional media for their career progression. This underscores the need for more interventions around this resource vis-à-vis career progression for women in leadership.


The study recommends a number of measures to curn cyberbullying of women leaders and to enhance the positive contribution social media tot cause of women and the Zambian society generally. The measures include, but limited to:

  1. Enactment of favourable regulatory and legal frameworks to protect women and other vulnerable social and online media users;

  2. Targeted and advanced training in use of social media, particularly for activism, advocacy and lobbying, crowd sourcing and protection from cyberbullies; and,

  3. Improved access to the Internet and ownership of a smartphone.

The author is a researcher and scholar with the Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambia. He is reachable on [email protected].


  1. Do you realize that 95% of women in Zambia do NOT have a smartphone? And have absolutely NO IDEA what social media is? Not even considering that in Lusaka internet access is reasonable – not more than that – but 15km outside the capital internet access is miserable or non-existent?

Comments are closed.

Read more

Local News

Discover more from Lusaka Times-Zambia's Leading Online News Site - LusakaTimes.com

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue Reading