Young 'guerillas' in cyberspace

Business

By Kenfrey Kiberenge

Experts are raising the alarm over an increasing misuse of social media by young people to fan hate speech ahead of the General Election.

The country’s young generation has of late lost the enviable tag of "least tribal grouping" with advent of the social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and You Tube.

Innumerable youth have been reduced to posting ‘status’ and ‘tweets’ with tribal intonations, as well as spreading propaganda against politicians and tribes they dislike.

Several blogs with tribal domain names and content are also sprouting up daily. The interactive nature of these sites allows users and their ‘friends’ to comment or reply, which is also teeming with tribal undercurrents.

Should you post an opposing view, the comment is deleted promptly or the rest on the ‘thread’ rile at the one posting.

But as Kenyan youth use the Internet to spread hate speech, in Egypt, 30-year-old Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who started the Egyptian revolution, made the coveted list of 100 "most influential people in the world" by The Time magazine.

Analysts argue that this new trend could have a greater impact on the 2012 General Election than the traditional way where politicians fan hate speech on podiums, since media houses largely censor explicit content.

National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) chairman, Mzalendo Kibunjia, warns the youth to be careful on what they post in the cyberspace.

"I call upon the youth to watch carefully what they write on Facebook as many may soon find themselves in trouble for spreading hate speech," Dr Kibunjia said.

Sociologist John Njoka says the impact of hate speech on social media will be higher than the traditional media because the population using it is bigger, younger and easily excitable.

"People using these media are more revolutionary," said Njoka.

Alex Gakuru, an ICT expert at Way Forward Technologies, argues that widespread access of the Internet, interactive nature, convenience of social media service coupled with a mistaken belief of anonymity is partly to blame for the widespread use of Facebook and Twitter to spread hate speech.

"Every connected user has a uniquely identifiable IP address," warns Gakuru.

But on his part, George Njoroge, the managing director of East African Data Handlers, says the viral effect of which the messages get distributed plus the complexity of tracking the originator were to blame.

"Most people have a tendency of using anonymous names in blogs hence masking the identity of the users," said Njoroge.

Leading political figures have also not been spared the vicious onslaught where their Facebook ‘updates’ have been bombarded with propagandist, ethnic, vulgar and comments bordering on inciting communities against one another.

Some users have opened pseudo- accounts with names that imply they hail from the same community as the targeted politician.

Most of these accounts lack basic information like their work place, place of birth and user’s photographs, which are found in most authentic accounts.

In June last year, Eldoret North MP William Ruto ran into trouble with NCIC after an account with his name posted inflammatory statements. He disowned the account as fake. It was quietly closed.

On his Facebook account, Prime Minister Raila Odinga says he expects users would not post comments that are, among other things, "racist or tribal".

Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta also cautions his supporters and critics "comments that are tribal in nature whether in my support will be deleted. Repeat offenders will be blacklisted".

NCIC vice-chairperson Mary Onyango declined to reveal details on how the commission would fight hate speech in the cyberspace.

But according to the IT experts, it is possible to rein in errant users of social media. Njoroge argues that the possibilities of monitoring social media for hate speech would require free tools and a few commercial options.

"The combination of different services, personnel and tools means this would be an expensive campaign. However the cost is not comparable to having a peaceful election," he added.

Gakuru said it would be easy to track down people responsible for misuse of the Internet, noting that everything posted on the Internet is saved on a computer server.

"With the necessary Court Orders duly served operators of such content servers would be expected to respect the rule of law," said Gakuru.

The IT expert said it would cost Sh12 million to control the web, 10 times what it cost the National Council for Law Reporting (Sh1.2 million) in professional fees to convert paper records into an electronic archive of information, which has been saved on www.kenyalaw.org.

The duo also floated the idea of popular social sites warning against spreading hate speech on their Terms of Reference.

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