Digital Disruption in Kenya = African Emancipation

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Think Kenya, and many of us will tend to think of electoral conflicts, ethnic violence, dynastic politics, pervasive corruption, drug trafficking, or even transnational security threats. These characteristics are both true and a caricature! While Kenya, like many other countries on the continent, is facing a daunting list of traditional challenges, digital platforms/social media are having a positive impact on its political life. In fact, Kenya can easily be classified as one of the most digitally developed countries in today’s Africa. There is so much we could, and should, learn from Africa’s “Silicon Savannah”..

Having worked for some time in Kenya, I knew about Ushahidi (an amazing crowd-sourcing platform for social activism), witnessed the popular use of M-Pesa (mobile money), but I only recently discovered the book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics (first published in 2018) by the political scientist and Kenyan writer, Nanjala Nyabola, who splendidly depicts digital democracy from a Kenyan perspective.  In this acclaimed research work, Nyabola challenges existing scholarship on African tech by exploring how state agency and “the politics of offline spaces” have consequences “for what happens online.”

The key question, Nyabola asks, is why are so many governments threatened by the widespread embrace of digital space? Kenya does give us an excellent sample of this because millions of Kenyans are active online. Many traditional discussions on technology adoption in the developing world have singled out Kenya as a place where there are possibilities for building a profitable digital and digitised democracy. “This country has everything to gain by consolidating a robust public sphere, but is also investing a great deal of time and money into policing online behaviour: what does that say about our ideas of digital democracy ?” argues Nanjala Nyabola, who clearly did not want to engage with the naive, optimistic view that more technology = more democracy. Were we to follow this simplistic equation, China would be perceived as the most democratic country on the planet...

Instead, Nyabola takes the Habermassian view that communication constitutes the basis for human behaviour. It is in the public sphere that ideas are negotiated and a national narrative is produced. “Whose voice counts in the public sphere? Is the public sphere restricted to the formal patriarchal political sphere, or do the ideas and opinions generated in other spheres that are shaped by social and cultural boundaries matter as well? If so, how are they made to matter?” are the questions that come to mind when one reads Nayabola’s fascinating account of Kenya’s digital and media landscape.

Kenyan media’s structure of ownership and its strong reliance on state-sponsored advertisements influence the narrative. Many stories, according to the author, fail to reflect the daily reality of most Kenyans.The first part of her book talks about the political conditions at the time of the Kenyan 2007 election, “which primed the country for digital change.” But when irregularities in the 2007 election were discovered, simmering tensions exploded. Live broadcasts were banned and there was a gagging order against the Kenyan press. “An educated, concerned diaspora and a public hungry for news were thus caught between the fury of an international press and the tame, self-censored Kenyan media. The internet served as a space for information dissemination during this critical period.”

In Part Two of her book, Nyabola focuses on the discourse created by the #KOT community: Kenyans on Twitter. Although she mentions the increasing use of other platforms such as Whatsapp, Facebook etc., Nyabola describes the ways in which KOT have exerted agency over the telling of their stories, such as “in pushing back against the specific framing of stories by foreign media with humour, creativity and satire, as well as against official narratives, thus holding the government accountable.”

Today, there are one million largely English-speaking, urban Kenyan Twitter users and 10 million Whatsapp users in a country of around 50 million.

Although Nyabola is quite optimistic about the political potential of Kenya’s digital space, she is not uncritical of the structure of the space itself. She recognises that many of the power hierarchies in offline spaces tend to be reproduced online: for example, women are still subject to more harassment online than men. Nyabola describes the organising of radical Kenyan feminists on the Internet on key issues such as domestic violence and the proper representation of women in Parliament in line with the Constitution.

But technology is never neutral. The platforms used by Kenyans and Mauritians are owned and controlled by profit-driven US companies. That is, people can fund these platforms: for example, “by creating bot farms to foist content on users, run smear campaigns, spread false information and shape users’ opinion without their consent.” Russia is suspected of engaging in such digital warfare during the 2016 US elections and 2018 Madagascar elections. Cambridge Analytica utilised the data from Facebook to shift public opinion during the Brexit referendum and Trump election in 2016. If the world had been paying attention to what Cambridge Analytica was doing in Kenya in 2013, Nyabola posits that “the current crises regarding interference in the US election and Brexit referendum might have been averted...”

”The only thing that is certain from 2007 to 2017 and everything in between is that Kenyans want agency over shaping that future, and will use whatever space they see in order to do that. But what matters is this: the underlying theme in the conversation is not conflict, it is agency”. Ultimately, democracy is about ideas. At the nexus between politics and technology, what ideas are pushed forward ? Which ideas are constrained? Who has the power to share ideas and who doesn’t?

Kenyans are more than ever determined to reclaim the agency to shape their own stories...This is indeed a great lesson for all of us!

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