We must silence toxic Twitter users to protect honest debate

I sense some digital fatigue. Respected news editor and serial tweep Oliver Mathenge declared Twitter unsafe for most of us this week. After carefully stepping over endless toxic hashtags over the last month, I publicly empathised with him.

Rude, pejorative and savage tweets have been all the rage recently. Is Twitter beginning to fail #KOT and Kenya?

Let me declare some bias. I have posted over 25,000 tweets in the last twelve years. I must confess my first year was a non-starter, I didn’t know what to post. The next three years were better. With colleagues, we hosted weekly tweet-chats to protect public schools, red-card politicians, advocate against electoral violence and demand the arrest of corrupt civil servants.

Growing followers organically (without ads or artificial followers), I am now a modest micro-level influencer.

What happened to Twitter? Now only the sixth most popular social media platform in Kenya, there are over 1.7 million Twitter users. More than 40 per cent of users on Twitter and other social media platforms use incognito or fake accounts.

Some are deliberately created as personal armies to unleash on opponents or sell products as diverse as Viagra, real estate and running shoes. What was once a platform for opinions, debate and whistleblowing has become an echo chamber dominated by a few loud and increasingly paid voices.

The answer may lie in Mozilla Foundation’s recent and revealing report “Inside the shadowy world of disinformation for hire in Kenya”. Between May and June 2021, their researchers studied nine information campaigns.

Careful sifting through 23,000 tweets and 3,700 user accounts, they uncovered a set of well-coordinated online attacks against journalists, judges and civil society leaders. Their study argues one disinformation campaign took place every two days during the political frenzy of the Building Bridges Initiative court case. Influencers are paid between Sh1,000 - 1,500 to trend an issue and Sh25,000 in monthly retainers. A decade ago, hashtag trending took careful timing, coordination and content, now shadowy distributive networks of fake accounts can do it all for you.

That this space has become highly commercialised is not the biggest problem, the greatest danger comes from the deliberate intention to overwhelm and exhaust independent and critical thought.

Hiding behind the argument of free expression, netizens and state officers are routinely humiliated, “cancelled” and assassinated by lies, political, ethnic and gender slurs, deep fake photos, and the unauthorised release of private information. These digital dangers threaten us personally and risk our national democratic values. Like sewage, disinformation regularly poisons our information environment and ability to make informed choices. Predictably it soon twists towards incitement and violence as we saw in recent Nigerian and Ugandan elections.

Perhaps it is time for Twitter to unplug trending hashtags that surge malicious content rather than profiting from those carefully placed paid advertisements. Perhaps it is also time for users to proactively and publicly interrupt narratives that cancel others or drive us crazy with intolerance. To do this, we need to become more skillful at spotting the inflated egos, over-exaggeration, and the simplistic focus on individuals not issues.

As we approach International Day of Democracy on September 15, blocking and banning alone may not be enough to keep these streets safe and open for us all. 

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