Social media platforms are now powerful global influencers. Thirst for infotainment has shaped them up in a puzzling way. Like never before, everyone has been thrust into the future.
Boasting 64 million mobile connections and 33 per cent internet reach, Kenya is among nations where platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter (X) have become an almost seamless culture.
But the ‘power of platforms’ is certainly a revolution with a snare. Call them a double-edged sword! TikTok, with a record 1.6 billion users globally, is the latest to ruffle feathers in Kenya. There’s a subtle push to have it censored or even banned altogether for ‘distasteful’ exposure.
President William Ruto held a virtual meeting with the platform’s CEO Shou Zi Chew on Thursday to discuss content moderation guidelines. Earlier, Speaker Moses Wetang’ula tasked the House Public Petitions Committee with investigating TikTok after a citizen filed a petition. A likely damning report is in the pipeline.
While President Ruto insists he is keen on a mechanism to moderate and monetise Kenyan content in all tech platforms, the big debate still revolves around national security fears, misinformation, social isolation, data breaches, cyber stalking, explicit material, hate and incitement to chaos.
There’ve been similar concerns with some local films. The Kenya Film and Classification Board has banned several for promoting homosexuality. But the clamour against TitTok will be divisive and emotive given its popularity that has bred anxiety and fear of an unknown aftermath. The growing zeal to wipe out “sinful” content is justifiable in a country like Kenya that claims to be morally upright. The only downside is that the entire creative industries will be an easy target in this long-drawn salvo. A lot will be at stake.
Kenyans must push back against any hasty and populist social media gags. Let’s not harangue platforms just because other countries are. We must allow ourselves to experiment online, stretch the limits and safeguard basic free speech principles that will upscale artistic creativity.
A good way to address Ruto’s concerns and “bring up our children in the right environment” is to form an expert committee of high standing to navigate it. Something touching on free speech shouldn’t look like a roadside affair of an individual. Similarly, the crusade against ‘dirty’ content shouldn’t be used by opportunists to defend twisted versions of truth, culture, morality and values. Moral correctness isn’t the same as being law-abiding.
Moreover, State overreach can’t cover for outright parental letdown. Protection of children from harmful content is best done by parents and guardians. This is why platforms have a “family safety mode” allowing parents to control children’s presence on the apps.
Clearly, there will be temptation to hide behind the so-called moderation to silence dissent. We will lose focus the moment we vet online content on the basis of viewpoint. When Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook locked Donald Trump’s accounts citing possible chaos following the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol, the platforms stood accused of “alienating large parts of the US.”
Policing of content must be tempered with efforts to support creators to the hilt. We’re yet to see bold efforts to support upcoming creatives. This week’s announcement that the government will set up studios in the counties is timely.
Any overaction by moral prefects could kill the seeding ground of the entertainment industry yet the potential is huge. The Music Copyright Society of Kenya places our entertainment worth at more than Sh200 billion. Our entrainment industry can thrive if we address the bad effects of morality checks that stifle the enterprise of artistes and sponsors.
The looming blanket targeting of local online content creators by government in pursuit of appropriateness for viewership or listenership will be akin to throwing the baby with bath water.
-The writer is a communications practitioner. Twitter: @markoloo