Guest Editorial : By Jessica Musila
As Kenya heads to its most complex election ever on 4th March 2013, the role of Kenya’s online community especially on social media is a point of concern. While the level of innovation demonstrated by the online community in establishing useful tools encouraging people to get involved with the process is to be celebrated, concern has been expressed about the amount of hate speech posted and shared online. Social media usage prior to the 2007 elections has been blamed for helping foment the Post-Election Violence (PEV) but Kenyans do not seem to have learnt from their past.
Politics remains a very emotive subject and the right to free expression has never been more tested. More so now with over 14million Kenyans with Internet access either via their phones or computers. The bulk of the Internet users in Kenya fall in the 18-35 age bracket, which also forms the largest portion of voters in the coming General Election. Ahead of the election, the government has warned Kenyans against use of hate speech and has introduced legislation with punitive measures, but these do not seem to be a deterrent.
Kenyans are quick to accuse politicians of being the main perpetrators of hate speech, but has the local online community taken time to evaluate the kinds of messages posted and shared? What kinds of dangerous messages are explicitly or subliminally passed on through posts, comments, likes, tweets and re-tweets? A close look at the findings of Umati, an iHub Research project on Kenyans use of hate speech on social media reveals Kenyans on online media are also culpable.
Between October and December 2012, Umati monitors have noted a steady rise in the amount of highly inflammatory speech seen in the Kenyan social media space. The most shocking and sobering fact is that over 50% of those expressing dangerous opinion online use their real identities, 40% post anonymously and only a mere 10% emanates from politicians, elders or bloggers. This proves that regular Kenyans also stand accused for posting incendiary comments. They are no different from the Kenyan MPs, whom they like disparage online of being just ‘tribal chiefs.’
The most common call to action is to discriminate against people from other tribes. In November, there were also calls to discriminate along religious lines. Sad to say, though the Kenyan online community is celebrated for being tech-savvy, the exposure has not refined their ethnic and religious sensibilities even after the 2007 Post Election Violence (PEV).
Umati ranks the calls to action according to severity. Most severe is the call to kill and the least severe is the call to discriminate. Other common calls to action are to riot, steal or forcefully evict. Most of the discriminatory statements are attributed to the anonymous and identifiable commentators.
Another startling fact is that the identifiable commentators form the largest users of extremely dangerous speech. Majority of the dangerous statements recorded are in response to public blog articles or forums and Facebook group posts. So far, the research shows that this group of commentators are very dangerous as they are the only group that has consistently issued out calls to action linked to dangerous speech. Their level of openness demonstrates the probability of their youthfulness coupled with a high level of naivety about the privacy of their social media use.
Moreover, the Umati research findings generally show that the Kenyan online community has a bewildering disregard of the impact their disparaging remarks or posts have offline as they are read, shared, re-tweeted or posted elsewhere and discussed. The research also shows that identifiable commenters have great influence over their readers than anonymous commenters.
People often underplay the influence they have. Yet, every person has a circle of influence and those who consider you an authority figure will often follow and share your sentiments online and offline. Statements posted online get a life of their own as they are reposted by others, and the cycle repeats itself. Unfortunately, these statements cross into the offline space through discussions often with negative consequences either incitement of the audience or physical harm to the targeted group.
Common characterisations used in Kenyan dangerous speech include: comparing people to animals, insects or a derogatory term used in mother-tongue, accusing another tribe of diluting the purity/integrity of the other group or suggesting that a certain group is a threat to another. The greatest number of statements recorded alluded to a certain tribe diluting the purity of another and these posts were mostly by identifiable commenters and a few politicians. This was the only comment linked to politicians so far.
The Umati findings are a call to the Kenyan online community - be it on Facebook, Twitter, blogs or public forums – to re-evaluate its contribution to the country’s peace and stability ahead of the general election. Citizenship comes with great rights and responsibilities. With heated political campaigns expected as Kenya enters the elections homestretch, the Kenyan online community should exercise great caution as they post their opinions online. While the freedom to express one’s opinion freely should be celebrated and safeguarded by all, it is also the sacred responsibility of every citizen to ensure peace prevails in the land.
Discontent and dissent should be expressed without attacking people of other ethnicities. Kenya belongs to all its citizens regardless of ethnicity and after the elections we have to live with each other and cooperate in nation building. Exercising tolerance whether in speech or writing is simply portraying etiquette, a vital principle every Kenyan should observe online and offline. Besides, it is not enough to be an armchair analyst who is always dissatisfied. The energy used in venting online could be used to discuss the main election issues, vet the leaders, and encourage people to go out and vote on Election Day. Kenyans should move the heated online discussions offline and translate them into action by voting in good leaders. Be the change you want to see!