Political parties have long been considered the pillars of contemporary representative democracy. The most distinctive feature of political parties, when comparing them to any other political interest groups, is that they are the only entity whose primary goal is that of contesting and capturing state power through peaceful means. Therefore, parties have traditionally been considered as the main vehicle for political representation, the main mechanism for the organization of government and the channels for maintaining democratic accountability (Heywood, 2007; Guy and Peters, 2005). Because they occupy such a central place in contemporary democracies, political parties have increasingly become targets of democracy assistance, especially since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Today, a large and ever-growing number of U.S., European, and multilateral assistance programs seek to help parties become effective pro-democratic actors.
The Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) for instance was founded specifically to take up the challenge of supporting political parties and assist them in strengthening their democratic roles in society, to better influence national development agendas and to effectively control the executive branch (Meijenfeldt et al., 2015) This support is in recognition of the fact that in emerging democracies, political parties often struggle to take on their conventional roles (ibid).
While the normative framework and mandate upon which actors base their support to strengthen political parties may remain static, the social and political context in which parties operate has significantly changed since their heyday in the middle of the 20th century. The most remarkable changes are the breakthroughs in information technology and social media. Today, the use of social media is not only changing whole sectors of society, it also offers numerous possibilities for modern, meaningful and equal participation and deliberation, as well as chances for new forms of transparency and accountability, in ways and on a scale that was until recently unheard of. Social media driven campaigning political organizations appear more attractive to citizens at the expense of traditional party political activism (Murthy, 2013).
In many parts of the world, people have found alternative ways to participate in politics through online petitioning and action groups rather than through political parties (ibid). This may appear to be a phenomenon that is mainly common in the developed world. However, the rate at which information technology is penetrating countries of the south means that this is a reality that will soon be the norm rather than an exception, also in Africa and for that matter, Ghana. Particularly in the wake of Arab Spring, one can note several commentators and opinion makers suggesting that social media or digital technologies can play enormous role in shaping the activities of political parties as well as help advance democratic participation in countries that believes in the tenets of democracy like Ghana.
The Literature Lacuna
Studies on political parties in Ghana have largely highlighted their evolution and formation; their role in democratic consolidation; their internal democratic practices; mobilization of their support base; inter-party dialogue; funding; and violence. Scholars like Shillington (1992), Jackson (1999), Fobih (2010) and Ayee (2008) have extensively discussed the evolution, formation and administration of political parties in Ghana's Fourth Republic. Ayee (2008) for instance discussed the emergence and development of political parties in Ghana's Fourth Republic with specific emphasis on the rationale for the formation of the New Patriotic Party, its manifesto, structure, constituency and power brokers. In discussing the role of political parties in Ghana's drive towards democratic maturity and consolidation, the works of Abdulai and Crawford (2010), Anebo (1998), McKwartin, (2001), Gyimah-Boadi (2009), Abdallah (2013), Ninsin (2006), Debrah (2007), Boafo-Arthur (2006) comes in handy.
These scholars highlighted the diverse role and peaceful participation of political parties in Ghana's electoral processes in a manner that has helped the nation's Ghana's drive towards democratic maturity and consolidation. They have also discussed the membership drive/mobilization, party structures, weaknesses as well as the challenges of internal democratic practices of the political parties. On inter-party dialogue, Jonah (2005), Ahwoi (2010), Gyimah-Boadi and Debrah (2008), and Asante (2012) have also written on the need to deepen the relations between political parties through dialogue. These scholars have argued out the need for political party dialogue platforms such as the Ghana Political Parties Programme and the Inter-Party Advisory Committee to be strengthened and institutionalized as a way of facilitating dialogue and peaceful interactions between political elites in Ghana.
On political party funding, Gyampo (2015), Nam-Kotati et al. (2011), and Ayee et al (2007) have highlighted the need for public funding of political parties to enable them deliver on their numerous mandate of interest aggregation and articulation, political socialization, training political leaders, etc as well as the challenges and citizens'unpreparedness to be supportive of the call for public funding of political parties. Finally, Danso and Edu-Afful (2012), Danso and Lartey (2012), and Darkwa (2012) have also discussed the malaise and challenge of electoral violence that dents and undermines Ghana's democratic gains and the need to put in place measures to minimize their recurrence.
As can be seen, none of the above scholars have focused on the role of social media in shaping the activities of political parties. According to Internet World Statistics, in 2013, Africa had 16 percent internet penetration and 67 million smartphones in use. In 2014, internet penetration in Africa increased to 26.5 percent. Indeed, there are indications that internet penetration in Africa will reach 50% by 2025 and that the continent will be home to 360 million smartphones. (1) With the surge in the use of social media, other forms of 'democratic' traditions are emerging. In this regard, political parties in Ghana and indeed, many African countries are striving to catch up with the realities of modernity. So, if political parties in developing countries like Ghana would have to remain relevant, the need to adapt to the changing environment occasioned by social media is imperative. Yet, studies on political parties in Ghana have been silent on the effect of social media in shaping the activities of political parties. In filling the lacuna in the literature, this study seeks to thoroughly examine the usage and impact of social media on the activities of political parties in Ghana. Specifically, the study discusses in detail, the concept of social media from a global perspective and narrows it down to Ghana. It identifies and analyzes the effectiveness of the various uses of social media by the political parties and political elites in Ghana and makes recommendations for reform where necessary.
Being a purely qualitative study, data is sourced from secondary works such as library research as well as interviews with the General Secretaries of the four main political parties with representation in Ghana's parliament, namely the National Democratic Congress (NDC), New Patriotic Party (NPP), Peoples' National Convention (PNC) and Convention Peoples' Party (CPP).
Even though there are over twenty-five registered political parties in Ghana, only four of them are seen as serious, active and having the political wherewithal to operate as political parties in Ghana. This explains why they have representation in parliament.
Among the four political parties selected, the NDC and NPP are seen as the two main political parties in Ghana because they have both been in government at least for eight years and have stayed in opposition also for eight years since 1992 when Ghana's fourth effort at constitutional democracy commenced. Given that the competition among the two main parties is keener, they have embraced the use of social media and other innovative means of reaching out to voters quickly, compared to the other two parties. Consequently, the views of the General Secretaries of the two main parties would be given more attention in this research. Generally, interviewing the General Secretaries of the four main political parties is critical because they are the "chief commanders" in prosecuting campaign strategies and ensuring that party ideals are carried across to party supporters and the rank and file.
The Concept of Social Media as Communication Tool
Broadly speaking, social media can be explained in terms of the easy use of internet by anyone to publish and access information, collaborate on a common effort, or build relationships (Murthy, 2013). Social media differ from traditional or industrial media in many ways, including quality, reach, frequency, usability, immediacy, and permanence (Agichtein et. al., 2008; Graham, 2011). It operates in a dialogic transmission system with many sources to many receivers in contrast to traditional media that operates under a monologist transmission model with one source to many receivers. Social media takes the form of Facebook, twitter, Whatsup, blogs, linkedIn, instagram, etc (Aichner and Jacob, 2015). It can be used to represent the extent to which users reveal their identities; and communicate with others; share, receive, exchange and distribute information. It can also be used to represent the extent to which people can know if other users are accessible including knowing where others are, in the virtual world and/or in the real world, and whether they are available. Again, it can be used to represents the extent to which users can be related to other users as...