The fourth presentation at the ISA panel that I’m chairing will feature research by Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich on the role of digital networked technologies during Kenya’s post-election violence (PDF). Blog posts on the other three presentations are available here on human rights, here on political activism and here on digital resitance.
Josh and Juliana pose the following question: do mobile phones and the Internet promote transparency and good governance or do they promote hate speech and conflict? The authors draw on the 2007-2008 Kenyan presidential elections to assess the impact of digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, on the post-election violence.
This study is an important contribution to the scholarly research on the impact of digital technology on democracy since the majority of the existing literature is largely written through the lens of established, Western democracies. The literature thus “excludes the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggle between failed state and functioning democracy are profound.”
Josh and Juliana draw on Kenya as a case study to assess the individual impact of mobile phones and the Internet on the post-election violence. The mobile phone is the most widely used digital application in Kenya and the rest of Africa. The low cost and ease of texting explains how quickly “hate SMS” began circulating after Kenya’s election day. Some examples of the messages texted:
Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future… we must deal with them in a way they understand… violence.
No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo’s you know… we will give you numbers to text this information.
The authors are concerned about the troubling trend of hate SMS in East Africa citing a violent icident in neighboring Uganda that was organized via SMS to protest the government’s sale of a forest to a company. As they note, “mass SMS tools are remarkably useful for organizing this type of explicit, systematic, and publicly organized campaign of mob violence.”
However, the authors also recognize that “since SMS, unlike radio, is a multi-directional tool, there is also hope that voices of moderation can make themselves heard.” They point to the response taken by Michael Joseph, the CEO of Kenya’s largest mobile phone provider Safaricom when he was asked by government officials to consider shutting down the SMS system:
Joseph convinced the government not to shut down the SMS system, and instead to allow SMS providers to send out messages of peace and calm, which Safaricom did to all nine million of its customers.
Josh and Juliana also note that tracking and identifying individuals that promote hate speech is relatively easy for governments and companies to do. “In the aftermath of the violence, contact information for over one thousand seven hundred individuals who allegedly promoted mob violence was forwarded to the Government of Kenya.” While Kenya didn’t have a law to prosecute hate SMS, the Parliament has begun to create such a law.
The Internet in Kenya was also used for predatory and civic speech. For example, “the leading Kenyan online community, Mashahada, became overwhelmed with divisive and hostile messages,” which prompted the moderators to “shut down the site, recognizing that civil discourse was rapidly becoming impossible.”
However, David Kobia, the administrator of Mashahada, decided to launch a new site a few days later explicitly centered on constructive dialogue. The site, “I Have No Tribe,” was successful in promoting a more constructive discourse and demonstrates “that one possible response to destructive speech online is to encourage constructive speech.”
Mobile phones and the Internet were combined by Ushahidi to crowdsource human rights violation during the post-election violence. The authors contend that the Ushahidi platform is “revolutionary for human rights campaigns in the way that Wikipedia is revolutionary for encyclopedias; they are tools that allow cooperation on a massive scale.” I have already blogged extensively about Ushahidi here and here so will not expand on this point other than to emphasize that Ushahidi was not used to promote hate speech.
Josh and Juliana also draw on the role of Kenya’s citizen journalists to highlight another peaceful application of digital technologies. As they note, Kenya has one of the richest blogging traditions in sub-Saharan Africa, which explains why,
Kenyan bloggers became a critical part of the conversation [when] the web traffic from within Kenya shot through the roof. The influence ballooned further when radio broadcasters began to read influential bloggers over the airwaves, helping them reach [...] 95% of the Kenyan population.”
When the Government of Kenya declared a ban on live news coverage on December 30, 2007, Kenyan bloggers became indispensable in their role as citizen journalists. [...] Blogs challenged the government’s version of events as they unfolded.
[...] Further, Blogs became a critical source of information for Kenyans in Nairobi and the diaspora. Rumors spread via SMS were dispelled via an online dialogue that took place on blogs and in the comments section of blogs.
When we talk about the ‘networked public sphere,’ we are usually referring to a Western public sphere; one that facilitates public discourse, increased transparency and positive cooperation. However, as the case study above demonstrates, the narrative is more involved when we talk about an African or Kenyan ‘networked public sphere.’ Indeed, the authors conclude that digital networked technologies catalyzed both “predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and civic behavior such as journalism and human rights campaigns.”
Several questions remain to be addressed in further research. Namely, how important is a vibrant blogosphere to promote positive applications of digital technologies in times of crises? Are networked digital technologies like Ushahidi more susceptible to positive uses than predatory uses? And finally, how does the Kenya case compare to others like the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine?