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Kenya Elections: Have Social Media Companies Learnt from Past Mistakes?

Harvey Pitt looks at the role social media has played in Kenya’s 2022 election and finds that the social media giants are failing to learn from the errors of the past

Street art in Nairobi depicts the two main candidates and calls for a peaceful election. Photo: Joerg Boethling/Alamy

Kenya Elections Have Social Media Companies Learnt from Past Mistakes?

Harvey Pitt looks at the role social media has played in Kenya’s 2022 election and finds that the social media giants are failing to learn from the errors of the past

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Voters went to the polls in Kenya this week, in a battle of the ‘hustlers’, represented by former Vice President Willian Ruto, against the ‘dynasties’ represented by Raila Odinga.

In a surprise move, the current President Uhuru Kenyatta – son of Kenya’s first leader after independence – lent his support to Odinga, despite Ruto formerly serving as his VP. Odinga’s father served alongside Kenyatta’s father in the post-independence Government.

Such a contest allowed for Ruto, whose campaigning posters were emblazoned with the slogan “every hustle matters”, to position himself as the political outsider, standing against the men that have ruled Kenya for generations. His narrative has intensified and mainstreamed feelings that these dynasties are conspiring to keep hard-working “hustlers” out of the corridors of power. In a recent press conference, he referred to those so-called conspirators as the “deep state”, which has been the soundbite of this campaign.

Kenya has a dangerous history of election violence – not least in 2007 when 600,000 people were displaced and many killed. In 2013, its election results were contested and in 2017, the Supreme Court was forced to nullify the results and force a re-run.

Part of the issue of 2017 was the influence of social media and the involvement of disgraced data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica, not least because Kenya has one of the highest internet penetration rate in East Africa. Further – as Ruto has shown – its political discourse relies on narratives, not policy.

Social media is a place where politically dangerous narratives can flourish and take hold. This is what makes it vital to cast a watchful eye over the social media platforms and their tepid efforts to have a net-positive impact on the Kenyan Election.

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Narratives of Distrust

The political narratives of 2007, 2013 and 2017 focused on ethnic faultlines, helping to fuel violence and unrest. On social media, these tensions often manifested as misinformation campaigns focusing on ethnic variances and the candidates representing each grouping.

This year, the stories the candidates tell have been arguably less dangerous. That said, Ruto’s celebration of the hustle, his attacks on the establishment, and his statements about the deep state risk undermining trust and surety in Kenya’s democratic institutions. 

After some concerns about how social media platforms like TikTok were giving a platform to those eager to stir up ethnic tensions in the run-up to the election, there has been an improvement when it comes to the electoral discourse on social media, due to a growth in fact-checking organisations with local expertise that aren’t afraid to hold politicians to account publicly.

Eric Mugendi, Africa Program Manager of Check Global at Meedan, a group supporting various media literacy initiatives and fact-checking organisations, explained to Byline Times how “there has been a slight improvement on social media at this election. The consequences for false claims are more severe”.

Mugendia adds a note of caution, however. “While this has improved discourse in the public channels of social media it may have driven divisive discourse to private channels that are more of a challenge to monitor”.

Praise should be reserved for these local groups keen to enforce accountability and clean up politically divisive discourse. The social media companies themselves have not been so pro-active. 

A joint investigation by Foxglove and Global Witness found that, of the 20 adverts they submitted to Facebook containing hate speech, every single one was permitted. This was in spite of the content violating Facebook’s own community standards.

Further, the level of ethnic tension, while diminished on social platforms, should not be underplayed. Research by Shujaaz Inc., a network of youth-focussed social ventures in Kenya, found three in five young people continue to observe election-related discrimination and hate speech.

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What Next for Kenya

The final election results have yet to be announced. But already, fear is focussed on how Kenyan institutions will cope in a post-2020 world, and what this campaign says about the future of democracy in the country. 

The chief concern is that political candidates will increasingly utilise Trump’s playbook to undermine democratic institutions where trust is already low.

“The question now is what impact does a post 6 January world have on such a divisive environment?” Nelson Kwaje, of #DefyHateNow and 211Check told Byline Times. “In Kenyan elections, judges are already a constant, existing and publicly facing feature”.

Social media has become the battleground for public opinion on the outcome of this vote, and the discussions that take place there puts pressure on Supreme Court judges to strike their gavel down in favour of one argument or another. 

Attention may be focussed on combating the ethnic tensions that marr every election in Kenya. But there’s a second crisis concerning social media platforms, civil society and the Kenyan people: democratic legitimacy. As Kwaje suggests “the seeds have already been sown”.

That this election has, so far, been an improvement on years gone by is thanks to the growing power of civic fact-checking organisations like Check Global at Meedan, #DefyHateNow and 211Check. These groups establish the accountability and media literacy necessary for democracy to function. 

But while these initiatives are vital, it’s inexcusable that social media giants continue to fail to enforce their own guidelines and under resource moderation teams in parts of the world where they know the PR fallout will be less damaging to their brand. They must no longer ignore how democratic principles are valuable regardless of where in the world they are, and they need to be protected as such. 

Harvey Pitt is Head of Digital Responsibility at ADDVERT


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