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Faceless hitmen for hire? The driving force behind social media activism in kenya

Blogger Robert Alai has been vocal in the fight for rights on his social media platform Photo: Courtesy

Early this week, popular blogger Robert Alai found himself on the receiving end yet again after celebrated Radio Jambo host Gidi Gidi blasted him for taking on Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero.

The blogger had tried to imply that the Nairobi governor is corrupt. Gidi Gidi took him head on.

The confrontation turned nasty, an exposé of sorts, as allegations of bribes exchanged under the table to do dirty jobs were made. So who actually received the Sh50,000?

Alai has seen it all, and almost looks immune to attacks as well as arrests that have in the recent past been triggered by his bold posts, some of which are said to be malicious and aimed at soiling people’s names.

He is a public watchdog and so entitled to blow the whistle whenever need be, but is it true that often, he has crossed the line?

Kenyan social media is one of the most vibrant in the world and bloggers have taken advantage of the new media space to exercise their ‘freedom of expression’, something being viewed as a double-edged sword as some are being said to be hitmen for hire being used by politicians, celebs and other influential people to silence their competitors.

“President Obama, Welcome to Mafia Country,” a glaring social media headline read as the US President visited Kenya two weeks ago.

“The Somali Warlord...” “Butcher of Hargeisa...” another one read.

Forget the sketchy big wigs whose cool comments and random disses start fancy trends with their troops of fans religiously retweeting them, the kind who are often spotted at top clubs pushing the “turn up” and “drink till we pass out” agenda, those whose nudes make them the talk of town for weeks thanks to the ardent #TeamMafisi, who would rather talk about the new socialite in town for a whole week.

This is the lot that unapologetically breaks the rules without seeking to impress, who dare to share with the world sheer truths regardless of how incriminating they might get, dispute political lies and power, unleash major scoops and overall, disturb the status quo without fear of the repercussions.

Activist Boniface Mwangi has had several run ins with authorities due to his activism Photo: Courtesy

They are the lot whose guts people love to hate on, but deep down one cannot ignore the value, change and progression they bring about merely by telling the story and drawing attention to societal issues that would have otherwise vanished into oblivion.

When leaked emails from WikiLeaks unveiled how Kenyan National Intelligence Service (NIS) officials had sought hacking services, many dismissed the idea as common practice in a bid to enhance security.

NOISE-MAKING PLATFORM

However, a request by the NIS that the hackers bring down Kahawa Tungu allegedly ran by popular blogger Robert Alai, left many wondering why the Government would be after such an individualised website to which not many people ardently showed interest. Soon after the revelations made headlines, other bloggers were up in arms with some publicly on terrorist activities”.

“I don’t think our serious NIS should waste time following bloggers,” one follower said only to be quickly intercepted by another who revealed that “Alai is a bigger threat to some people than the Al Shaabab. Heads must roll.”

Call it a revolution or a social noise-making platform, either way, there is no denying just how much social media and blogging has changed the news landscape, given a voice to the once-silenced common person and brought forth the era of citizen journalists who break news quicker than media houses, thanks to minimal restrictions and less gate-keeping. Often, this is the distinguishing factor between them and mainstream media houses.

Not about to die any time soon, it seems they are here to stay as more tweeps and bloggers gain recognition for their work across different media platforms, while citizens have started approaching them with scoops that could rattle big corporations.

“Information is power and I believe that if people have this information, we can use it to change the world. I realised that with the information I was receiving from some of my sources, I could influence change through my platforms and that was how it started for me. We cannot simply live in a state of fear. Someone has to stand up and champion the change we need,” Alai told Pulse.

With over 200,000 followers on Twitter, Robert Alai is not alone. There are a dozen others who always seem to unleash high profile information from different sources, on a daily basis. If it’s not about high-profile political party discussions, the big guns will be spotlighting corruption in top organisations or crafting scoops and opinion pieces to keep their followers in frenzy.

Quite the activist, Boniface Mwangi has quickly made a name as the social media “saviour” who will jump at the opportunity to help fellow Kenyan fight against corruption or poor conduct by the Government. Starting out as a photojournalist, Boniface’s experience during the post-election violence shook him to the grim realisation that Kenyans lived very different lives.

Some of his powerful photos told the Kenyan post-election narrative without sugar-coating it. Despite the hardships and danger encountered during the time, his works saw him scoop a CNN Journalist of the Year award and from then on he has been on a mission to change society.

“Article 35 guarantees that every Kenyan has a right to access information. The only way we can fully participate in nation building, which is our patriotic act, is by ensuring that information is available. The information I share is my way of awakening my fellow citizens to the reality of what is going on,” says Boniface Mwangi.

 

A while back he ‘retired’ from his role as an activist but like they say, ‘activism is not a job, but a conviction’, and he was soon back on the streets fighting for justice, and receiving accolades from local and international quarters. With PAWA254 swiftly changing perceptions, Boniface is on a roll.

“I use social media to make a difference. Today, social media is the largest concentration of Kenya’s population in one place. This is potentially a goldmine of opinions, solutions and networking. Twitter and Facebook, especially, have allowed us to engage without borders,” he adds.

While some are out to correct and keep the Government in check, others like Cyprian Nyakundi are checking corporate organisations. It is no wonder that a leading telecommunications company was determined to take the blogger to court for defamation after some of his posts discussed the alleged plight of employees and mentioned court cases that were still ongoing. As a result, he was slapped with a court order that required him to appear in court and defend himself against the charges pressed by the telecommunications company.

In such cases, one wonders where the bloggers get money to hire legal representation, but don’t be fooled. This group has powerful individuals behind them who often use them as a mouthpiece for their agenda.

“No one in their right senses would wake up and start challenging the status quo without basis. There must be some kind of motivation that inspires one to pull such bold moves. Most times the bloggers are contracted by competing companies to hang dirty linen in public,” Brian, a social media executive explained.

Across the platforms, it becomes clear to see that Twitter interactions greatly differ from those on Facebook.

While Twitter is all about relaying the message in 140 characters, Facebook grants one the leeway to use as many words as they please. Consequently, this has seen the story tellers stick to Facebook where their ardent fans will ‘congregate’ each time a post is put out and argue over it.

Wahome Thuku Photo: Courtesy

It is here that influencers like Wahome Thuku reign supreme. Like he once mentioned in a post, he is able to spot a political lie and will not hesitate to question the validity of statements whenever the opportunities arise. Thanks to his journalistic background, backed up by newly-minted legal knowledge, Wahome is an impeccable orator whose description of the simplest things can stir up threads of conversations.

One of his most popular posts was one where he described the Arimis milking petroleum jelly in a post that spread like wild fire. Apparently many, including Senator Mike Sonko, could relate with the post’s content, which led to viral sharing.

UNCOVER TRUTHS

Lest you start pardoning the big guns for often trying to get their fingers burnt, one Isaac Kamau had a bold list of statements that went ahead to prove how unapologetic he was about his posts. Here is what he posted: “1) I will never apologise for telling the truth. 2) I will never call a spade a big spoon. I will not lie. 3) I will continue exposing the devil, his lies, schemes and strategies in our country...” And the list went on and on.

Others like Willy Omosa and Bobby Bobbant have very staunch political leanings and will do whatever it takes to spread influence about their leaders of choice despite opposition from argumentative, arrogant and sometimes ignorant fans. It is on such platforms that warring political faction will meet and boldly express their disappointments or excitements.

While some will uncover truths and share them on their pages, thus prospering positive interactions, others like Allan Wadi a.k.a Lieutenant Wadi, the university student who served a jail sentence for insulting President Uhuru Kenyatta, will use social media to elicit hateful emotions. These are the kinds who will make you wish that the Kenya government had swifter measures and stricter rules governing just how much one is allowed to share on social media.

No wonder a list was making rounds on social media claiming that the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) was out to arrest bloggers and social media users who were inciting the public. Most influencers who are arrested are soon released.

In this era, real life ‘inciters’ have transformed into ‘influencers’ whose simple posts can cause revolutions. In nations such as Tunisia and Egypt, the power of social media has been used as a tool to mobilise and eventually effect regime change. Religious leaders have used it to disseminate religious messages among their faithful not only on Sundays but on a daily basis, yet, it is the same tool that ISIS and Al Shaabab are using to spread fear and terror messages.

“I handle them (threats) as they come because even mainstream media faced the same criticisms when they were starting. Such down sides are part of the journey and as long as the message gets delivered, that is most important,” Alai concludes.