Rise of online campaign platforms tests Kenya’s anti-hate watchdogs

Sunday September 8 2019

ODM leader Raila Odinga campaigns for party candidates in Kibra in Kenya's capital Nairobi ahead of party primaries.

Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga campaigns for party candidates in Kibra in Kenya's capital Nairobi ahead of party primaries. Away from the open grounds and streets of Kibra, the battle for the hearts and minds of voters has been raging online for weeks. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

OTIENO OTIENO
By OTIENO OTIENO
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Candidates for Kibra — a constituency in Kenya’s capital Nairobi — are expected to start hitting the campaign trail on Monday, September 9, the official date set by the electoral commission for them to do so.

The slum-based constituency’s more than 118,000 registered voters will be returning to the ballot on November 7 in a by-election to pick their next MP to replace Ken Okoth, who died of cancer at on July 21.

Political parties sponsoring candidates in the by-election are President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee, Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement and Musalia Mudavadi’s Amani National Congress.

BATTLE FOR VOTES

But away from the open grounds and streets of Kibra, the battle for the hearts and minds of voters has been raging online for weeks.

The party primaries were held against the backdrop of fierce factional fighting in Jubilee after a controversial letter notifying the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) of the party’s list of aspirants surfaced online.

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The letter circulated by, among others, State House digital director Dennis Itumbi, was dismissed as fake by the party secretariat.

Former ICT permanent secretary Bitange Ndemo attributes the growing popularity of the online space as an election campaign platform in Kenya partly to the safe route it affords politicians and political parties to sidestep the electoral commission’s rules.

In addition to setting the date when campaigns officially kick off and the duration for candidates to canvass for votes, the IEBC requires them to stop 48 hours to voting.

“Online platforms do not quite have the restrictions of the IEBC on the campaign period. Even on voting day, a candidate can still mobilise support or reach out to voters with campaign messages on social media platforms,” said Mr Ndemo.

“The Internet also allows for manipulation of messages. Someone’s speech on video, for example, can easily be flipped and used against him or her.”

KENYANS ONLINE

But the greatest attraction for politicians online is the large number of Kenyans accessing the Internet on their phones.

The latest Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) data puts the number of active mobile subscriptions in the country at 49.5 million, which translates to a penetration level of more than 100 per cent.

The vast majority of Kenyans who access the Internet do so using their phones, and they are encouraged by the significantly knock-down cost of smartphones and data.

Online retailer Jumia Kenya says smartphone prices dropped 50 per cent between 2014 and 2018.

Social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook groups have become popular with people looking to crowdfund for welfare support or undertake political mobilisation.

“On these groups, one is able to reach a large number of people at the same time with instant messages, which can at times go viral. Consider that some WhatsApp groups can have even 100,000 members,” observes Prof Ndemo.

Shitemi Khamadi, an official of the Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE), says many politicians have incorporated social media messaging in their campaign communication strategy and have bloggers or influencers on their payrolls to execute it.

Such bloggers or social media influencers are often expected to project a positive image of their political clients, monitor and respond to any damaging information about them, infiltrate political groups and drum up support for them and execute propaganda hit jobs against their clients’ rivals.

“Kenyans are going digital in a big way, with the younger voters especially active on social media platforms. WhatsApp and Facebook are the stadia of today,” says Mr Khamadi.

ONLINE CAMPAIGNS

Although online campaign messaging has been used by candidates to varying degrees of success in the last the last three elections in Kenya, it came under intense scrutiny only recently in the wake of revelations that the disgraced British data firm Cambridge Analytica played a role in the last one in 2017. The firm, which has since folded up, admitted having been contracted by President Kenyatta’s campaign to execute its communication strategy, including running dirty online attack ads against his rival, Mr Odinga, and manipulating voters’ psychology.

Similar campaign tactics employed by Cambridge Analytica in other countries’ elections, including the US’s, got the company in trouble amid concerns that it was undermining democracy.

But in Kenya, where national election battles are still largely fought along ethnic fault lines, much of the anxiety around online campaign platforms is rooted in fears they might be hijacked by hate mongers.

Hate speech and incitement on vernacular radio was partly blamed for fuelling the post-election violence of 2007 and 2008, which pushed the country close to the brink of a civil war.

A broadcaster on one of the radio stations was among the six people initially charged with crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

As part of the effort to avoid a recurrence of massive ethnic-related violence, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) was set up 2008 to police hate and promote healing while anti-hate speech laws have been tightened.

The NCIC gets busier during electioneering periods when it deploys its staff to different parts of the country to record and study speeches at campaign rallies, and monitor the media for hate speech.

But the rise of the online space as a political campaign platform presents the commission and other government agencies with even more challenges due to the difficulty in policing the fast-changing virtual jungle and their own capacity limitations.

“We are in for a very difficult future. Remember that in 2007 we didn’t even have WhatsApp to deal with,” says Prof Ndemo.

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