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Kenya warns of social media crackdown

July 21, 2017

Kenya's government has threatened to clamp down on social media users who spread hate speech or fake news that could fan violence in the lead up to elections next month.

Man walks past a banner saying "Kenya shall not burn"
Image: Reuters/M. Eshiwani

"There are terrible people in social media who are hell-bent on causing unnecessary anxiety across the country," said the chairperson of the National Cohesive and Integration Commission, Francis Ole Kaparo, earlier in the week. 

The commission was formed to monitor hate speech and incitement after more than 1,000 people were killed and 650,000 displaced in violence following Kenya's 2007 elections. 

That violence was largely blamed on ethnic clashes inflamed by hate speech. 

"We are having a major crackdown on those who misuse social media," Kaparo said.

The government has increased its tracking of words on social networks and messaging services likely to incite violence around the general elections on August 8, 2017. Kaparo warned that such users will be "shut out."

Two men on the street hold mobile phones to their ears
Nearly 90 percent of Kenyans have a mobile phoneImage: Simon Maina/AFP/GettyImages

The tough words come on the heels of new social media regulations banning political messages that use language deemed offensive, abusive, insulting, misleading, confusing, obscene or profane.  

The regulations also ban political messaging in languages other than Kiswahili and English – the hateful messages that fanned the 2007 election violence were often written in local vernacular languages. 

Kenya's police have already started charging social network users for spreading hate speech. Two people were charged in the western town of Eldoret over Facebook posts this week, days after a student was charged in the capital, Nairobi, over a WhatsApp text. 

But rights defenders are worried that the government could use the broad definition of banned content to clamp down on criticism or dissent. 

"We support government efforts to combat hate speech but we strongly feel that this latest approach is high-handed and open to abuse," said IT consultant and lecturer John Walubengo, speaking on behalf of the Kenya ICT Action Network (Kictanet). 

"How do we protect freedom of expression with the new regulations?" he asked, speaking with DW on the phone from Nairobi.

Fake news rears its ugly head

Widespread fake news is another concern, with a poll showing almost nine out of ten Kenyans believe they have seen deliberately misleading information about the upcoming elections. 

A man holds a placard reading "No Raila no peace in Kenya" as behind him the street is in flames
Ethnic clashes spread across Kenya after the 2007 electionImage: Getty Images

Fake news and rumors can not only skew or influence election results, but also drive conflict and incite violence. 

The false news was mostly shared on WhatsApp and Facebook, which has around 5.3 million users in Kenya, the poll by Geopoll and Portland, a consulting group, found.

Mass surveillance of digital networks 

The Communications Authority Director General, Francis Wangusi, warned this week that authorities are watching messaging and social media platforms and have the "capability" to find out who users were. 

"There is nowhere you can advertise yourself, even in social media, without us physically tracing where you are," Wangusi said. 

The government has been vague about the actual extent of its surveillance capacity. But Privacy International, a UK-based rights organization, reported that Kenya's National Intelligence Service (NIS) appeared to have "direct access to communication networks" across Kenya.

It said this was concerning, because there is "no real ability to check NIS's powers or report potentially abusive use of communications surveillance." 

Switching off the Internet 

In 2016, five African countries, including Ethiopia and Uganda, disrupted the Internet during elections and many have been debating whether Kenya will do the same. 

Although Kenyan authorities have stressed in the past months that a shutdown is "unlikely", the government has said it has a plan in place to take social media and messaging services offline if the country's security is threatened. 

A photo of a finger being marked with a pen
Kenyans will vote in presidential, parliamentary and local electionsImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot/M. Chenguang

"We are not going to negotiate the stability of the country and we will not negotiate the peace but we need to conduct these elections," acting Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i said. 

The economic loss of a telecommunications shutdown in one of the most digitally advanced countries in Africa would be enormous though. 

The incredibly popular mobile money service M-Pesa, for example, makes 15,000 transactions per second in Kenya, points out Kictanet's John Walubengo. 

"If they shut down M-Pesa for one minute, or even one hour, that is a lot of money [the company] is losing," he said. "The government will get a lot of resistance from the key players when it comes to shutting off the Internet unless they are able to convince them that they will be compensated."

Neighboring Uganda lost at least $2.2 million (1.89 million euros) during an Internet shutdown around its election in 2016, according to a recent Kictanet report looking at Internet shutdowns.

Rather than switching off the whole country, Walubengo said, it's more likely that the government would shut off specific regions or hot spots to contain communication in troubled areas. 

He said Kictanet is calling for the government to keep Kenya online during elections and after. Such shutdowns not only restrict people's human rights but when social networks are switched off, he said, then the lack of information can further inflame the speculation and rumors. 

"The free and open Internet becomes its own medicine because people are also using it to counter hate speech and rumors. But if we switch it off, the rumors will find other darker avenues and not be able to be counteracted."

Additional reporting by James Shimanyula.

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.