Will Twitter make an impact in Kenya's elections next week?

Smart phones now affordable for the first time and can carry messages of reconciliation as well as hate. 

Courtesy of Twitter
The logo for Twitter. Now that smart phones are affordable, social media – tweets, tags, pokes, posts, uploads – is expected to make an impact in Kenya's elections next week.

Social media – tweets, tags, pokes, posts, uploads – were not part of Kenya's last election. So new media can't be blamed for the violence that dented Kenya's image of stability in 2007.

Back then, Web-enabled mobile phones were the playthings of elites and too costly; most people relied on newspapers and radio.

But the landscape has changed dramatically. On buses, in restaurants, in churches, and even in rural areas, it is not unusual to see smart phones and tablets on display and in use.

Yet while it is clear that the use of social media has spiked, especially among politically active youths – the effect of new media is not clear. Quick access to information, and instant interaction, is something new. Some analysts think that social media are allowing the nation to "vent" some of its anger.

But there is also a rapid dissemination of political propaganda, accusations, hate chat, and so on that "makes it easier to inflame the situation," says Emmanuel Kisiangani, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi. 

New media are being used "in an admirable way," argues Wambua Kawive, head of a Kenyan network of civil society groups dealing with human rights and democracy, and are "opening national dialogues on issues, including past causes of violence."

But some 70 percent of the election will be driven by social media propaganda, says blogger and media guru Bogonko Bosire. "Election campaign time is like wartime," he says. "Candidates who control discussions on the networks will control the elections."

Today, a Google smart phone running Android software costs less than $100 in Nairobi, and new broadband fiber-optic cables offer access to Facebook and 10 megabytes of data for a few cents a day.

"There is a real pressure to be on Twitter, on Facebook, to be commenting and moving the debate on," says Ephantus Mwangi, a youth worker from Kitale in western Kenya. "That was not here last [elections]. It means now that everyone is watching everyone else."

Hate speech in the last elections was spread by phone text, radio, and leaflets, Mr. Mwangi says. But while social media may promote the dark side this year, he says that they are more likely to be enlightening.

It is the first election in Kenya in which serious issues like landownership, the International Criminal Court indictment of presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, and the stifling problem of corruption are getting talked about in the less-regulated space of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

"We witness Kenyans debating critical issues affecting their country," says Grace Wambui, a civic nongovernmental organization official based in Nairobi. "Some public posts are dreadful, but there is plenty which also is striking and rational. I think that matters a lot for this election."

Internet usage in Kenya is growing at one of the fastest rates in Africa. More than 14 million people now use the Internet; five years ago the figure was 3 million. According to Kenya's Communication Commission, 99 percent of Internet access is via mobile phone.

Johanna Kariankei, a long-distance runner from Narok, close to Kenya's famous Maasai Mara wildlife reserve, says he and most of his friends use Facebook to discuss the elections. "But I don't know really if the politicians are listening to us," he says. "They have their pages and their sites, and we comment there. But there is no communication from them. I fear they don't even read the comments."

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