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Social media in Africa: A double-edged sword for security and development


Authors: Kate Cox, William Marcellino, Jacopo Bellasio, Antonia Ward, Katerina Galai, Sofia Meranto & Giacomo Persi Paoli

Date of Publication: 2018

Publication: RAND Europe



Purpose of the study

Key questions 

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) commissioned RAND Europe to undertake a study exploring social media use and online radicalisation in Africa.

  • RQ1: What trends can be observed in the use of social media in Africa to contribute to online radicalisation?  
  • RQ2: Have existing counter-radicalisation interventions by African national governments and non-African government agencies:  
  1. Focused on preventing and responding to online radicalisation? 
  2. Built innovative technological approaches into their design?
  • RQ3: What implications can be drawn for the improvement of existing programmes and design of future programmes aimed at countering online radicalisation?



This study is based on the application of three research methods: 

  1. A structured literature review (peer-reviewed academic and ‘grey’ literature), 
  2. Key informant interviews (semi-structured telephone interviews); and
  3. A lexical and network analysis on primary Twitter data. The secondary data collection focused on a wide range of technologies and platforms – including Telegram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Kik and

Number of participants

14 key informant interviews conducted by five groups of stakeholders: eight academic experts, two policy experts, two civil society representatives, one local expert and one industry representative. 


Seven African countries – Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda

Type of ‘participant’ 

Islamic terrorism


This report aims at raising awareness of how social media is used by al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and ISIL as part of their inventory of tools to radicalise individuals in Africa, and at outlining governmental efforts to address this issue in order to enhance future policy and programming in this area.

Key findings 

Several common trends can be observed in the use of social media in Africa to contribute to radicalisation:

  • Social media is used by all three groups, albeit to varying degrees and levels of sophistication
  • ISIL appears to use a wider range of social media platforms than al-Shabaab or Boko Haram
  • All three groups have used social media for propaganda, recruitment and coordination
  • Terrorist groups’ use of social media is adaptive to external threats and opportunities
  • The role of social media in radicalisation is often complemented by ‘offline’ peer influences

While government-led counter-radicalisation efforts in Africa do not appear to focus largely on online radicalisation, some important lessons can be identified.

Analysis of domestic government strategies and overseas government programmes showed that – while efforts are being undertaken to understand and counter the drivers of radicalisation in the Africa – initiatives have not typically focused on online radicalisation or built innovative, technological approaches into their design and implementation. This indicates that recognising and responding to the growing influence of the online influence of al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and ISIL in Africa is a relatively new area for domestic governments and foreign nations.

Key recommendations 

The following sections present a set of policy and programming recommendations for the governments of Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda, as well as highlighting the role that UNDP could adopt in supporting the uptake of these recommendations.

Recommendations for policy, programming and research:

  • Recommendation 1: Develop a bespoke national strategy for countering online radicalisation
  • Recommendation 2: After preparing a national strategy, develop counter-online radicalisation programmes tailored to local context and needs
  • Recommendation 3: Share lessons on ‘what works’ in countering online radicalisation at the national, regional and international levels

Reviewer's Notes

This is the first publicly available study to analyse how social media is used by al Shabaab, Boko Haram and ISIL to contribute to radicalisation in seven African countries –

  • Cameroon, 
  • Chad, 
  • Kenya, 
  • Nigeria, 
  • Somalia, 
  • Sudan and 
  • Uganda 

– by applying lexical and network analysis techniques to primary Twitter data.

While the main emphasis of the study is on social media, the analysis also includes a focus on other communications technologies or apps where data is available (e.g. WhatsApp) and on the use of radio, given its prevalence in the countries of focus.

The study research questions are analysed through the lens of three case studies focused on Islamist militant groups: alShabaab, Boko Haram and ISIL. These groups were selected for inclusion in the study on the basis that 

  1. they are based in Africa; 
  2. they currently constitute three of the most lethal terrorist groups worldwide; and 
  3. they are known to make use of social media to further their strategic aims

Although this isn’t specific to the West, it provides good practical information on how to design and develop policy and programming to tackle the serious threat posed by online/digital technologies

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