I am a scholar of global communication working on journalism, civil society, and digital technologies in Africa. My research explores the multifaceted legacy of colonial power relations on contemporary media representations, journalistic practices, associational life, and digital networks. The first stream of my research agenda concentrates on media stereotyping and representations of Africa in global news. The other explores digital technology and advocacy across several African contexts, particularly focusing on Big Tech’s initiatives to increase global connectivity. Disciplinarily, my scholarship sits at the intersection of global communication, journalism studies, critical/cultural studies, African studies, postcolonial/decolonial theories, and critical tech studies.
Media Stereotyping and Representations of Africa in Global News
How does the global news industry represent Africa? Over the past 30 years, scholars across the humanities and social sciences have criticized the propensity of Western news media to marginalize Africa and provide a single stereotypical story of the continent. My research on the topic sheds new light on this long-standing issue. I combine the critical analysis of media texts (articles, op-eds, headlines, pictures and captions etc.) with that of media production through more than 50 interviews conducted over a decade with journalists, editors, correspondents, photographers and bloggers at the heart of the production of Africa’s media image.
My work reveals the contemporary endurance of dehumanizing and racist representations tied to colonial and racialized representations of Africa as the “dark continent.” But it also uncovers a surprising range of significant changes, from the firm emergence of a positive discourse about an “Africa Rising” to African audiences’ successful use of digital platforms to challenge stereotypes. My research demonstrates why media representations of Africa are contested, successfully resisted, and in some cases, are evolving away from Afro-pessimist, negative stereotypes.
These findings contribute to rethinking long-held assumptions about Africa’s media image, advance current debates about media stereotyping and the links between news content and production, and inform discussions in the industry on improving news coverage of Africa. As such, they matter for media and communication scholars (particularly the sub-fields of global communication, journalism, and critical/cultural studies); for African studies scholars (across a broad disciplinary spectrum including international relations, anthropology, literature, linguistics, and history); and for journalists and news organizations.
I have published on various aspects of this research, including three single-authored articles (Journal of Communication; Journalism Studies; Visual Communication); two co-authored articles (International Journal of Communication; Communication, Culture, Critique); an entry in the Oxford University Encyclopedia of Journalism Studies; a book chapter in the edited book Africa’s Media Image, and an invited commentary in African Journalism Studies. You can find out more about my publications here. If you’d like a copy of those papers, drop me an email at tnothias(at)stanford(dot)edu.
I am currently developing this research stream through several projects, including:
- A co-authored article based on findings from a British Academy funded research project on global news coverage of US, Chinese, and French involvements in Africa and the geopolitics of representation;
- The development of an online tool (the “Africa Stereotype Scanner”) allowing journalists to check their writing for implicit biases by automatically detecting lexical fields, expressions, and words that contribute to the most common stereotypes about Africa;
- Finally, a book manuscript, Africa in Global News: Journalism, Representation and Stereotypes in the Digital Postcolony, synthesizing my decade-long research on the topic.
Digital Rights and Technology Across Africa
In this research stream, I explore the intersection of digital technology and advocacy across several African contexts. I ask questions like: why should we understand the global expansion of digital technologies within a broader history of media imperialism and anti-imperialism? How do US tech platforms shape media pluralism in countries such as Kenya and South Africa? And when do communities across Africa organize to challenge political power via these platforms – but also to challenge the power of data-centric technologies?
In an article published in Media, Culture, and Society, I explore the history of Facebook’s most notorious and controversial initiative to increase digital connectivity across the Global South, Free Basics. Public and scholarly attention focused on its ban in India following nationwide protests about net neutrality. In Africa, however, Free Basics expanded widely and without much public scrutiny. My paper traces the quiet expansion of the program to 32 African countries. To do so, I draw on a qualitative review of various sources (corporate promotional material, industry conference talks, industry reports, tech press articles, and expert blogs) and an innovative VPN-based method to independently assess the availability of the program across Africa. The paper identifies two interrelated phenomena behind this expansion: (1) Facebook’s evolving communication strategy, including a greater engagement with civil society organizations, and (2) the focus of digital rights activists in Africa on other issues like Internet shutdowns, government surveillance, and the lack of data privacy frameworks.
Over the years, I developed this research axis through various projects and collaborations, including: the organization in 2017 of the first-ever pre-ICA conference on media and Africa, with a particular focus on digital technologies; editing in 2018 a series of blog posts on “Digital Media in Africa” for Africa is a Country (a leading blog on media, culture, and politics in Africa); co-authoring with Rosebell Kagumire a commentary on Ugandan activist, Stella Nyanzi, and how her activism blends digital technologies with older, anti-colonial social protest strategies; co-producing with Lisa Garbe and Nic Cheeseman “Decoding Digital Democracy in Africa” – a collection of 20 essays written by leading scholars and civil society voices on a range of tech policy debates, from internet shutdowns and AI regulation to social media mobilization, disinformation, and government surveillance.
I am currently working on several publications related to this stream:
- One of my working papers explores the origins and meaning of currents calls to resist digital colonialism and decolonize digital ecosystems. I reveal the emergence of this movement at the intersection of academia and civil society, and examine its implications for research, tech design, regulation, and advocacy.
- Another paper assesses how Facebook’s zero-rating scheme shapes media pluralism in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon, and the DRC.
- I am also co-authoring with Daniel Mwesigwa and Lisa Garbe a book chapter on digital rights activism in Africa, focusing on facial recognition and biometrics. The chapter is part of a book on artificial intelligence and freedom of assembly from a global perspective, which I am co-editing with Lucy Bernholz, and which is funded by a grant from the Stanford Institute on Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI)