Are the digital darlings of social media bloggers or the new web PR?
During the 2010-11 political turmoil in Ivory Coast, Edith Brou and her band of online activists tested the power of the internet and collective action.
Presidential challenger Alassane Ouattara was widely seen as having won the 2010 election and, after a stand-off, former president Laurent Gbagbo was arrested. He was extradited to the International Criminal Court, the first head of state in the court’s custody.
Brou, one of 10 founders of the nonprofit Akendewa (clever spider) used the internet to stay connected with holed-up citizens. They helped to solve problems arising from the conflict, such as how to find water and even what to do with a dead body.
They used Twitter and Facebook, but with the help of a call centre run by friends in Ghana. "It was very intense. Sometimes I received some threats," says Brou, 34, picking her words carefully in a thick French accent.
She is now a well-known social media influencer in Ivory Coast, neighbouring countries and the Francophone diaspora. She has a Wikipedia profile, and has been invited to the Élysée Palace by French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss the digital market in Francophone countries.
"A man with a humble but dynamic and assertive posture," says Brou of Macron.
But are influencers yet another threat to journalism and newspapers? Their rise represents an acceptance of opinion leaders as interpreters of events as much as it devalues what traditionally has been an obsession with the 'objective' reporting of facts.
"He listened to us around the table. He was taking notes. He asked questions."
"Geek" or "digital entrepreneur" is how she describes herself. She attended the African Development Bank’s (AfDB’s) 2018 annual meeting of its board of governors.
Brou’s presence at the week-long event was an unusual corporate communications strategy on the part of the organisers. In addition to a clutch of journalists from African countries, the bank also flew in web influencers — among them Brou and SA’s Ulrich Janse van Vuuren — to reach their followers on social media.
The thinking seems to be that influencers can reach more people than traditional journalists and have a richer connection with their followers.
"I attended and had the freedom to provide an inside view in my own voice and from my own perspective," Van Vuuren says. "This allowed people who were not there to engage with the sessions online in real time, ask questions, add their opinions and follow the meetings live on social media."
Brou has a following of more than 150,000 people on Twitter and Facebook combined. She thinks the AfDB saw the potential of harnessing her network four years ago when she was invited to the bank’s annual meeting in Abidjan.
But are influencers yet another threat to journalism and newspapers? Their rise represents an acceptance of opinion leaders as interpreters of events as much as it devalues what traditionally has been an obsession with the "objective" reporting of facts.
"They invited me as a blogger," she says. As to what her brief was this time round, Brou says: "The bank can talk to my audience, using me."
Her audience are 20 to 40 years old, she says. "They are educated, they are fully connected." Among them are workers, entrepreneurs and students, "and they are very aware of what’s happening in the world".
William Bird, head of Media Monitoring Africa in Johannesburg, likens influencers to public-relations (PR) practitioners, but he adds that bloggers do not necessarily fall into this category.
He says it depends on how they approach their blogs, whether they use them for PR or more journalistically.
"The fine line influencers have to travel is to promote a product or a brand in such a manner that they make it seem to be reasonably [and] possibly fair."
Inspired by Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, Brou launched BuzzyAfrica.com in 2017, which she describes as her digital agency’s ' R&D' [research and development]
Perhaps Brou is more blogger than influencer. In addition to her online activism she runs a digital agency, Africa Contents Group, which employs 10 people.
She was recruited by a local company, AOS Group, to work on their websites and manage their online communities.
Soon after, she joined a Senegalese digital agency, People Input, that was seeking to launch in Ivory Coast.
She left the company to venture out on her own, a feat she describes as extremely challenging, particularly as she is a single mother of two.
Inspired by Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, Brou launched BuzzyAfrica.com in 2017, which she describes as her digital agency’s "R&D" [research and development]. But the need for revenue prompted her to offer tailor-made digital solutions to companies including banks, cellphone operator Orange Telecoms and Le Monde Afrique — her first client.
But because of her huge following, Brou cannot afford to ignore politics.
"I think before tweeting my own opinions because the politicals are looking at me."
She tries to respond to her followers, but it is hard to keep on top of the many messages she receives.
"Sometimes I use one weekend, maybe one weekend in the month" to read and respond to messages.
Victor Oladokun, the AfDB’s director of communications, says the week-long session reached 350-million people.
"The world of media has changed … it is fragmented, it is 24/7 and as an organisation we have to adapt. Social media has become an integral part of the media ecosystem [and is] sometimes larger than TV."