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Social Media Monitoring is Worth the Investment

COMMENTARY
By Irvin Jalang’o | January 19th 2017

I had confidence in my father. I also had the fear of God, knowing that nothing I did under his roof would go unnoticed.

One Sunday morning, everyone was getting ready for church; my father was a staunch Catholic, who made us all recite ‘Hail Mary’ by age 5. In fact by the time I joined nursery school at the same age, I had no idea why other children around me still had to learn how to speak. But that Sunday morning was a rare one, when instead of the usual tea and bread smothered with margarine, there was the welcome addition of boiled eggs. And the rule was one egg a person. Egg tasted better than bread by all means and I had a sweet tongue. So I thought to myself, why not hide one egg under the pillow and see if anyone would notice. And as everyone settled on the table for breakfast, my father looked at me in the eye and I cringed within, knowing he knew. I walked slowly to my bed, lifted the pillow and brought the egg to him, and asked him to help me peel the shell off. I knew he knew, even if he didn’t. That didn’t matter, what did was that in my mind, I knew he knew. And I grew into a proper adult.

As an adult, I relate government to the household I grew up in. So recently when I read a lamentation here about how the Government should not have invested Sh600 million in a social media monitoring system for the upcoming General Elections, I remembered my father, shook my head and started writing this.

Social media is extremely quick, dynamic, and has a savagely large audience. It generated an alternative public sphere and enabled a new kind of citizen participation in discussing matters. In my short 10 year use of social media, I have realized that rather than being in the leisurely pursuit of its social aspect, some users who have neither the moral nor intellectual capacity to handle it turn it to a rubble rousing tool.

Words are dangerous. Words can be used to say anything, even if it’s a lie, because there’s no licensing process. Words are mightier than a gun they say, yet there are legal restrictions on carrying guns in public but none on walking around with concealed writing utensils. Clearly, social media can’t be trusted with just anyone. Since you cannot put its use in the hands of a few highly-trained professionals, monitoring is necessary.

The pattern of election violence following the 2007 elections occurred in discernable waves. Social media offered narratives by citizen reporters and digital activists that were more diverse than the views presented in the mainstream media, and represented grassroots reactions during the crisis. Social media offered swifter, more subjective, and more detailed coverage during a fast-moving and changing situation. Pundits did say that media needed a bit of regulation to avoid a repeat of the same situation.

Since then, social media has grown into a larger medium (So large that media houses have social media accounts); commentaries start from way before an election is thought of. And in that period, the flaring emotions and messages that run on these platforms cannot be assumed not to exist. The more time you have to learn about the backward motives some people have on social media, the more likely you are to remain unimpressed by the platform. Social media is not all likes, retweets, smiley faces and emojis… Therein also lie terrorists, pedophiles, hackers, conmen and every other noun for ill-motivated humans.

But we are not a pariah state, we do not shut down the internet or blacklist some websites, we do not switch off communication in the face of trouble, we do not block Twitter and Facebook even in the worst of terror attacks. So far, the government has done well in letting freedom run on social media. While I agree with the article on the devastating drought we are facing, relating the spending on social media monitoring and giving one weight over another is not right. They are two different spheres, two different subjects with different intricacies, only merged by the finance bit. And that bit would be too shallow without the background story to each. Drought became a national disaster just the other day, and 9.2 billion shilling has been pumped into it, but social media has been here and will still be here (Monitoring also means you can tell where what is happening, including drought, faster than mainstream media will report it). To play politics with either is saddening.

We can never agree on surveillance, it is a global gray area, but it works. Investing such an amount to keep us all safe, cannot be that bad. What is dangerous is using either topic subjectively.

The opinion is in response to the commentary on Wednesday by Edward Wanyonyi entitled Kenya buys Sh600M social media monitoring tool as people starve https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2000230286/opinion-kenya-buys-sh600m-social-media-monitoring-tool-as-people-starve

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