In Kenya, social media hate speech rises as nation awaits election ruling

Ugly and demeaning speech on Kenyan social media has tribal elements and many in the country are worried it could spark a reprise of the street violence that took more than 1,000 lives after the 2007 election.

Patricia Amira, a popular Kenyan television talk-show host, began noticing the comments and tweets soon after the country’s election results were declared nearly a fortnight ago.

People whose opinion she once trusted were posting hateful remarks that appeared on her Facebook news feed that she describes as “uneducated, demeaning and shocking.”

“At first I tried to engage with them, urging some moderation, but in some cases that just provoked another stream of vitriol,” she says. “In the end I have chosen simply to 'unfriend' a lot of people. I just don’t want to see some of the stuff that’s being posted. It’s demeaning, it’s irresponsible, and it’s as far as you can imagine from healthy debate.”

Ms. Amira is far from alone in her views.

In the wake of elections that are still unresolved, significant numbers of Kenyans on Twitter and Facebook are purging their followers and friends as a tide of “hate speech” -- which is encouraging tribal divisions -- sweeps through social media. 

Such base and hateful talk during Kenya’s last election in 2007 fanned tensions that spilled into violence and later led to International Criminal Court charges, including one for a radio DJ accused of broadcasting incitements to violence.

But after this year's March 4 elections there have been no significant street clashes. Instead, ferocious divisions between sections of Kenyan society are now playing out on the internet.

The trend is worsening as the country waits for its Supreme Court to rule on a petition claiming results from the March 4 polls were wrong, and that the elections should be repeated. That decision should arrive by March 30.

Online hate speech battles appear to be most toxic between supporters of the declared election winner, Uhuru Kenyatta, who are largely from the Kikuyu tribe, and among those backing Raila Odinga, from the Luo tribe. Mr. Odinga was runner-up in the election and has disputed the results.

Many online comments feature derogatory metaphors historically used to belittle members of other tribes, says Paul Warambo of the US-based non-profit Translators Without Borders, which monitored local language media in Kenya’s election.

“An outsider might not understand what it means to be called “uncircumcised,” or a “thief from the mountain,”” Mr. Warambo says. “But here everyone gets it, and everyone understands the offense such terms are meant to give.”

The most onerous posts seem to appear on Facebook, among an often unemployed and under-30 cohort, the same demographic that in 2007 made up much of the post-election street fighters.

A trawl of Facebook comments over the last 48 hours found many examples, some chillingly threatening violence against rival political supporters, visible on friends’ feeds. (The Monitor has chosen not to publish them.)

Kenyan authorities are increasingly worried that this anger will spill over from computers, smartphones and iPads and into the real world.

The wave of disturbing comments has become so hostile that one influential newspaper commentator recently wrote a column headlined, “The demented postings on social media must stop before blood flows."

The National Cohesion and Integration Commission, mandated to police hate speech, agrees with this warning. The Commission informed two leading online commentators Thursday that they faced charges of failing to curb provocative remarks on their websites. 

In a statement titled “Sanity must prevail if Kenya is to move forward,”  the Commission’s chairman, Mzalendo Kibunjia, said Wednesday that his staff were stepping up their hunt for hate speech.

“Discussions in the social media have intensified along ethnic dimensions,” he said. "We thus have increased our engagement in this field and continue to track persons who perpetrate ethnic hatred with a view to recommending them for prosecution.”

Political leaders, he added, bore the greatest responsibility to ensure that their “every gesture and utterance actively promotes national cohesion.” In the 2007 elections hate speech mostly proliferated through text messages and on radio stations and fomented six weeks of fighting that killed 1,100 people. One of three Kenyans facing International Criminal Court charges for their alleged role in that violence is Joshua arap Sang, a radio talk-show host.

Now, registration of mobile phone ownership and monitoring of mainstream media have neutered these platforms as ways of spreading hostility. But the use of social media has mushroomed since 2007 thanks to cheap smartphones and affordable internet connections, giving new forums for onerous expression. 

“It’s the same sickness that is now spreading again,” says Charles Kanjama, a Kenyan lawyer specializing in media and IT. “We must have freedom of speech, yes, but not at any price. Comments that start as sensible political debate soon take on the feeling of the mob, and the mob always assumes the nature of its basest elements.”

Government efforts to stamp out the nastiness have “failed entirely," he says, despite hate speech convictions carrying five-year prison terms and fines equivalent to what an average Kenyan would earn in a decade.

In the vacuum of official sanction, the majority of Kenyan tweeters, Facebook users and commentators - who find the current trend repulsive - are launching online campaigns of their own.

“Freedom of incitement? Amazing how these freedoms of expression turn around after blood is shed. Sometimes, it is not what you learnt in class, it is common sense that carries the day,” wrote one.

Another posted: “If you are my friend here on Facebook, I trust that you have the wisdom to choose peace and justice for yourself, but also for me. Uhuru and Raila are not looking for peace and justice - they are looking for the presidency…Are they worth the hatred we have for each other?”

Fredrick Nzwili in Nairobi contributed to this report. 

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