The unprecedented growth in digital communication has given Kenyans a platform for political activism.
With the General Election barely five months away and intense political activity on social networks, it is safe to conclude that social media’s influence on the polls will be stronger than before.
The impact of social media as a tool of political engagement is already being felt profoundly with the growth in the various social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and YouTube.
According to the latest annual report, The State of the Internet in Kenya 2016, by Nendo, there are 6.1 million Kenyans on Facebook, up by 1.8 million users registered in 2015.
The number of monthly active users on Twitter stands at 2.2 million with a million daily active users.
WhatsApp is a popular chatting platform and is estimated to have 10 million users while Instagram and LinkedIn are estimated to have 3 million and 1.5 million respectively.
Politicians know that the quickest way to make news is to put out a statement and avoid paying for advertisement space.
Citizens have also found a more reliable way to be heard by incumbents and aspirants is to tweet them directly or tag them on Facebook posts using the latter’s personal accounts without going through their personal assistants or secretaries.
Experts attribute social media’s powerful influence in politics to the ability of the various platforms to hasten politicians’ and parties’ communication and reach potential voters in a more targeted manner and vice versa without the intermediate role of the traditional mass media.
Last year’s polls in America best illustrate how social media has gained popularity as a tool for political communication during electioneering periods.
According to data from SocialFlow, a social media management company whose software handles news dissemination for many of the country’s top media organisations, Donald Trump, who emerged the winner on a Republican ticket, had an unprecedented reach through tweets, shares, and likes.
In a year, the country collectively spent more than 1,284 years reading about Trump on social media. If he had sought similar attention by buying ads, Trump’s social reach would have cost $380 million (Sh38 billion).
With the majority of Kenyan voters being youthful, digitally literate, and with access to smartphones and the internet, the candidates to beat in the August polls will be the ones who effectively use social media.
Through the various platforms they will easily conduct targeted grassroots-based citizen campaigns and voter mobilisation.
The low side of social media is that if not used responsibly, it may lead to distortion of public discourses and fan ethnic animosities in young democracies like ours that previously witnessed ethnic-instigated violence.
This is why as we approach the polls, it behoves the general online community to exercise responsible use of digital platforms for political communication.
Although social networks offer the fastest means to disseminate news, it does not enjoy the professional gatekeeping role of editors in traditional media.
This has often given rise to cases of fake news, hence the need for verification of any information received before sharing on the various platforms.
Use of language with negative ethnic innuendo must also be avoided as this is what spews the venom that may lead to flare-ups, especially in the aftermath of the elections when certain groups are not pleased with the outcome.
Unless the Kenyan online community exercises caution in the use of digital social networks, it will have only itself to blame if the government decides to resort to drastic measures such as shutting down the internet, as happened in Uganda and Gabon.
The good news is that there are a number of initiatives going on to ensure responsible use of social media during and after the electioneering period.
The Kenya Social Media Awards, a platform that recognises and rewards individuals and organisations that have made significant contributions to the growth of social media, for instance, is partnering with Safaricom and OLX Kenya to educate various communities on the responsible use of digital networks.
Through partnerships, the organisations are supporting various digital platforms such as the SOMA Connect, which engages various corporate organisations on effective use of social media, enhancing brands’ equity and empowering the citizenry.
Various corporate organisations rely on social media for profiling and brand enhancement and any irresponsible use can cause reputational damage.
The Annual Olx SOMA Awards focus on recognition, education, and empowerment of targeted communities on the use of social media.
Through the platform, various communities are able to make positive use of the media as a tool for social transformation.
With more such initiatives, social media enthusiasts will be instrumental in shaping the outcome of the polls without pandering to misinformation and hatred which may fan the embers of ethnic animosity during the electioneering period.