Digitalization has been a catalyst for change in Kenya, amplifying voices that otherwise went unheard. But while its impact has been positive, concerns are growing about technology’s negative effect on the public sphere.
— Social media platforms are emerging as a key place for political discussion
— Through the use of popular hashtags like ‘Kenyans on Twitter’ (#KOT) – online voices influence broader society
— The 2017 election period saw an upswing in online manipulation and fake news
— Traditional structures still dictate online social norms
“Do you know #KOT — Kenyans on Twitter?” asks Schaeffer Okore of the Ukweli Party. Kenyans on Twitter (@KOT) is a popular Twitter handle and hashtag (#KOT), which is used by Kenyans to comment, argue, and poke fun at current political and societal issues. The mainstream media regularly picks up the topics raised. Many Kenyans feel the hashtag offers a new perspective on their national identity by representing the issues that matter to people, while reflecting Kenyan wit and humor. “It is the unofficial opposition of the country,” laughs Okore. “KOT have a lot of power and they’re able to shift the conversation.” It combines Kenyans’ excitement about the Internet with their love of discussing politics — a combination that’s a good starting point for the country’s dynamic online culture.
Jessica Musila of the government tracking website, Mzalendo, believes that digital technology has notably raised the engagement of Kenyan citizenry. “Twitter and Facebook are giving us a space that was not traditionally accessible,” she said. “We get to defend the integrity of our country. We can make memes about government officials and even call our president names on Twitter and Facebook. But we also have very engaged conversations.” That’s because government representatives and officials are responsive either via their own social media accounts or the accounts of influential stakeholders who play a key role in public affairs.
However, Rachel Nakitare of Kenya’s state-run broadcaster, KBC, thinks these conversations mostly represent well-educated, urban elites who are early adopters of information technology. “The Internet gave Kenyans a voice and an opportunity to raise concerns in real time. However, this is limited to the elites, and to those who know how to navigate in those spaces,” she said.
Politics, elections and digital’s dark side
But sometimes, knowledge of how to navigate the digital world can be exploited, for instance during politically sensitive periods. It was Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008 that created the foundation for today’s vibrant digital sphere, with many bloggers challenging the government narrative broadcast on traditional media. Ten years later in 2017, there was hope that technology could help ensure a fair and peaceful election thanks to the launch of the e-government system “e-citizen” and development of IT infrastructure for voter identification and election result transmission. But in the end, the voting system proved to be hugely flawed. More cynically, political camps exploited digital technology and social media to manipulate the election. According to Kenya’s ICT Action Network KICTANET, a whole ecosystem was installed, from data mining and meme factories to bloggers for hire, paid to spread messages in favor of a respective political party. A study by the international consultancy Portland Communications revealed that bots accounted for a quarter of all influential accounts. According to Kenyan writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola, “the challenges posed by new media replicate those raised by local language radio during the 2007 election”. She says, for example, that while WhatsApp is becoming more popular as a political mobilization tool, it is also becoming the preferred place to spread hate speech.
Patriarchy perpetuated online
Despite embracing technology, Kenyan society is still structured around traditional values and morals such as patriarchy — the effects of which are felt both online and offline. Many Kenyan women who have spoken out online have reportedly been victims of cyber harassment ranging from abusive comments to identity theft and even death threats. Chery Yugi of Article 19, an organization that promotes freedom of expression, says that such threats can affect women in different ways. “There are those women who are just propelled higher, and those who completely withdraw from those spaces,” she said. For Schaeffer Okore of the Ukweli party, the latter outcome is unacceptable. “The digital space is a representation of the offline space we have in Kenya. A society that doesn’t represent women offline will not do it online,” she said.
When looking at the scale of abusive behavior online, Nyabola says it would be easy to think that Kenya’s digital story is overwhelmingly negative — but that would be too simplistic. “Underneath all of this tension and upheaval is agency. Kenyans are taking on technology that was built for the West to tell their own story and chart their own political destiny, for better or worse,” Nyabola says.
What experts say
Catherine Gicheru from Code for Kenya on the importance of creating agency:
“The tools often already exist, but they need to be used and young people need to understand that at the other end, somebody is listening and somebody is acting. The government is taking action because people are demanding it via technologies.”
Rachel Nakitare from KBC on increasing understanding of the Internet among people living in rural areas:
“You need to explain to them the value of the Internet. The value needs to outweigh the costs. You need to explain how it is improving their lives. If you are talking to a dairy farmer who has a lot of cattle, show them how they can distribute their milk using their phone. People can then deliver by motorbike and pay via M-Pesa.”
— Improve digital skills
Schools and universities need to focus on teaching applicable digital skills that are relevant to the job market. Maureen Moraa of the Tunapanda Institute stresses that “there should be more talk between the educational sector and industries. We focus too much on our papers and CV's".
— Creating home-grown solutions
Digital colonialism is a serious issue in Kenya. Many technologies applied here were developed in the West; by, for, and to Western societal norms. Kenyans need to move away from simply adapting those technologies to generating their own home-grown solutions.
— Continue social media engagement
“Digital platforms are the spaces where the extent of Kenyan character and creativity are on full display. Significantly, online spaces have amplified those who would otherwise be unheard,” says political analyst Nanjala Nyabola. She wants more Kenyans to embrace those spaces to tell their own stories.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer