Kenya Social media literacy, ethnicity and peacebuilding

Fredrick Ogenga

Social media and politics in Kenya

Social media has been at the core of recent studies on media and political campaigns in Kenya. In many parts of the world including Kenya, big technology' companies like Cambridge Analytica have been caught up in the middle of electoral controversies. In the context of social media platforms, the new phenomenon of citizen journalism and cyber citizenship, where the internet has given birth to cyberdemocracy, is both an exciting and a worrying trend. Cyberdemocracy is the participation of citizens in democratic debates online, spearheaded by online communities such as Kenyans on Twitter or KOT. Social media has also been used negatively, leading to ethnic divisions and violence as witnessed in Kenya in the aftermath of the 2007/8 elections and in the 2017 elections.

Social media can play both a positive and negative role in social movements. It can be used to incite hatred, fuel ethnic polarisation in multicultural societies like Kenya and build support for authoritarian leaders. At the same time, social media can be used as a vehicle to combat hate speech, spread useful and empowering information and to support democracy and social change. Yet few civil society organisations, governments and citizens really understand how social media works. Informed by the latter concern, initiatives are emerging such as Maskani or dwelling in Swahili that seek to train the youth in social media literacy and digital peacebuilding in Kenya. Maskani is a collaborative project between Build Up and the Center for Media, Democracy, Peace and Security' involving six public universities in Western Kenya, over 60 students and 12 faculty' members (Ogenga 2020).

Social media exists within the virtual space of “the attention economy” where user profiles are exploited for marketing purposes by business multinationals making the culture of global excessive consumerism and materialism acceptable beyond reasonable doubt (normalised). Consequently, it requires taking a creative capacity building approach to citizen participation, to positively use social media’s potential in bringing about democratic change. For example, there is a need to counter meanings that are dictated by virtue of social media technical specifications, like algorithms and echo chambers, through parasocial interaction outside the scope of technology (offline). The possibility' that people can encounter only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own (selective reading) and may not consider alternative ideas cannot be helpful for politically volatile multicultural societies like Kenya.

In Kenya, a few civil society organisations (Tiku 2018) such as Internet Without Borders and Article 19 have openly questioned the role of social media networks such as Facebook in political transitions and believe that Facebook should be more open and collaborative in their ventures, such as those that seek to recruit local content editors. They have also criticised Facebook’s engagements with government as being exploitative, for example saying that the company’s provision of free Wi-Fi to poor communities is sugar coated as philanthropy. They have stopped short of expressing fears of content manipulation in favour of the State.

Critical theories of technology and theories of change point out that proper planning, participation and evaluation of social media use by critical stakeholders (civil society, government, citizens, technology companies and the international community) can help establish long-term goals. In the case of social media, it can be used to foster greater understanding and democracy rather than promote hate and division. If this is achieved, then social media can effectively support peacebuilding in Kenya.

This calls for a greater understanding of how technology companies, as some of the most critical stakeholders, are responding to civil society concerns. It appears that in Kenya, technology companies and the government seem to read from the same script regarding the negative use of social media during electioneering. For example, in the case of Cambridge Analytica and ОТ Morpho Safran Data Company1 in the controversial 2017 elections in Kenya, disinformation and propaganda thrived at the expense of robust civil discourse and genuine political participation. According to The Standard newspaper, for example, a video secretly recorded and broadcast by Britain’s Channel 4 News indicated how Cambridge Analytica (CA), a data analytics firm, collected psychometric data from 47,000 Kenyans to record their fears of interethnic violence and unemployment. Cambridge Analytica then used this information in attempts to manipulate voters and influence the Kenyan elections in 2013 and 2017 (Wafula and Mosoku 2018). In this context, civil society remains central to shaping the future role played by social media in positive cyber-citizenship, digital rights, democratic consolidation and peacebuilding.

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