Social media: It’s a jungle out there, worse is to come

Wednesday June 28 2017

All platforms are underlain by ever more complex algorithms whose sole job is to keep users’ attention. PHOTO | FILE


It is hard to believe. Just 20 years ago, the biggest contestation regarding the media and elections in Kenya had to do with equal access for the opposition to the supposedly public broadcaster.

Those were the days of the struggle for independent and pluralistic media. Independence from the state and ruling political parties. Thus it was that the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group came to an agreement on opposition access to the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. From “no reforms, no elections” to nominal reforms and elections under a slightly more level playing field.

Why this meander down memory lane?

Because the media landscape has changed so much. No more the days when public radio was the primary source of information.

The KBC still operates but is largely irrelevant. Private broadcasters proliferate, but the most successful, with the biggest audiences, are owned by key politicians and their families or individuals with obviously partisan views. Genuine community media outlets are few and far between.

Then there is the explosion of social media. Which we should not mistake as being the great leveller.


We know, for example, about the little army of paid “trolls” whose job has been to follow any dissenters — key civil society figures, for example — and discredit whatever they do or say or write while generating vociferous and usually false rebuttals of their content. And by viciously attacking their persons.

The online community even has a name for this little army: The “Itumbots.”

Contrary to the widespread belief that social media is the domain of the young, educated urban classes, it has found its way to the rural areas, where audiences include older, less educated generations.

Why does this matter?

For one, as noted numerous times before, “news” circulated on social media is not subject to the same journalistic codes and standards. No requirements for accuracy. Certainly no requirements for truth. And definitely no requirement to avoid stereotypical expression.

Second, even in the absence of the conscious human hand in generating and circulating content, social media itself is not neutral. Tristam Harris, formerly of Google, founder of Time Well Spent, points out that all social media platforms are underlain by ever more complex algorithms whose sole job is to keep users’ attention.

They make full use of all the moral persuasion techniques that exist. Meaning that what users think of as their independent choices are actually conditioned.

This is much more insidious than live armies of “trolls.” And it was used to full effect by companies like Cambridge Analytica during the recent American elections.

Cambridge Analytica uses data mining (from social media) and analysis for “strategic communication” during electoral processes. Thanks to the public outcry over its involvement in the election, technology companies have begun to pay more attention to how to secure the privacy of their users’ social media information.

It is not clear that any of the political parties in Kenya are making use of companies like Cambridge Analytica. Maybe we’re still at the stage of the manual ‘Itumbots.”

And more worried about targeted social media shutdowns during the electoral process than about the insidious ways in which social media determines our ‘free choice.” Still…we are a long way from the IPPG agreement on equal access to the public broadcaster. It is, indeed, a brave new world.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is Amnesty International’s regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes