The magnitude of online misinformation and hate messaging in this election week is disquieting. This should worry citizens aware of the power of social media and what its misuse portends, especially for a country with systemic electoral problems.
What’s now known to be the ‘power of platforms’ is a net positive but with a snare fully loaded with the stark jeopardies of political incitement, exclusion and polarisation.
In the last two days, thousands or perhaps millions of Azimio la Umoja and Kenya Kwanza supporters have generated, consumed and shared propaganda and calculated political buzzes with glee. But regulators and the security sector are missing in action. More worrying is the fact some foremost election propaganda peddlers are well known yet no attempt is made to rein in on them. The platforms too haven’t helped police the hurtful content flying around.
From fake presidential election tallies, fake alerts about abductions to misleading congratulatory messages for candidates said to have won but who did not, the social media space has become toxic to peace, law and order.
On Twitter and Facebook, there are numerous election graphics, pictures and videos peddling openly misleading information. Agents of misinformation thrive on politics. It happens everywhere including the US. We saw it with the last elections in Uganda which led to partial closure of internet when Yoweri Museveni was facing an onslaught from Bobi Wine. In such a delicate period as now, fake news overtly impacts attitudes and people’s belief systems and in the end influences actual behaviour. Let’s not provoke trouble. Failure to act on this misinformation streak will subjugate our democracy, resilience and patience in a mystifying way. With 52 million mobile connections and 22 million Internet users — eight million of whom are active social media users — Kenya is among nations where Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter have become a way of life. These platforms are potent and must be used responsibly.
We’ve seen the outcome of irresponsible social media use in many countries. In Myanmar, 730,000 refugees are suing Facebook for Sh17 trillion over claims it was used to fuel turmoil leading to rape and mass murders.
Social media has thrust the world into the future. We’ve seen little-known candidates win elections courtesy of their social media prowess. The ‘Black lives matter’ crusade started in the US and defied geopolitical barriers to spread to Brazil, Malawi, Honduras, and all over the place. Kenyans have a responsibility to ensure the country holds together during this transition. What benefit do we get by raising political temperatures in an already tense situation? Restraint and responsible use of the digital space is key. While blanket social media gags can reverse important access to information and freedom of expression values, the government must now move in to ensure hatemongers are made to face the law. It does not mean restricting expression.
Free speech is sacrosanct. This is why in a case against Donald Trump, the US appeals court affirmed that people whose social media accounts have “the hallmark of a public forum” can’t exclude users on the basis of viewpoint. But free speech should not be allowed to compromise peace. The line can sometimes be blurred.
Hate campaigns and fake news are a dangerous mix. According to recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, fake news is a phenomenon of deep concern, with 75 per cent of consumers agreeing it’s hard to distinguish between what is real and what is fake. Let’s be genuine in our love for Kenya as the polls agency ties the remaining ends.