Nairobi — When Kenya held its general elections in 2007, internet penetration in the country was very low. But today, thanks to fibre-optic cables and increased mobile access, many Kenyans are running blogs and actively using social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
An online mapping programme is set to play a part in the forthcoming Kenyan election, allowing observers around the country armed with mobile phones to send in observations of fraud or violence to a central hub in Nairobi.
"Although we see this as a blessing, it is also proving to be a curse and could even be detrimental to our stability if we leave individuals unpunished who continue abusing social media by propagating hate," said Mary Ombara, director of the National Steering Committee on Media Monitoring (NSCMM).
Although political hate speech has decreased in mainstream media, the use of politically inflammatory statements and incitement is alarmingly on the rise on social media, Ombara told Sabahi.
In the 2007-2008 post-election violence, mobile text messages were sent to rally crowds and incite the public, she said. The violence resulted in about 1,200 people dead and about 300,000 displaced, according to the United Nations.
With today's technological advancements and the proliferation of social media, inciting messages could reach thousands of people and do even more damage.
Ombara said the NSCMM, in an effort to avoid a repeat of violence, has employed experts to monitor activity on social media to nab culprits who propagate political hate speech. These experts are currently investigating three bloggers and plan to file charges against them for political incitement.
The National Cohesion and Integration Commission Act of 2008 states that people may be prosecuted for hate speech if they use "speech that advocates or encourages violent acts against a specific group, and creates a climate of hate or prejudice which may, in turn, foster the commission of hate crimes".
Curbing 'dangerous speech' online
The Umati project, an initiative run by Nairobi-based technology innovation centre iHub, uses expert monitors and modern technology to search for "dangerous speech" on social media.
"Our flagship project seeks to monitor and report, for the first time, the role new media plays on a Kenyan election," iHub said with the release of its October 2012 findings. "Our project will have citizens at its core and use relevant technology to collect, organise, analyse and disseminate the information that we receive."
The Umati project is targeting "dangerous speech", which it narrowly defined as hate speech with the potential to cause violence. The project eventually hopes to set a definition of hate speech that can be incorporated into the constitution.
iHub research manager Agnes Crandall said the initiative, carried out in partnership with software developer Ushahidi, employs five people representing the five largest ethnic groups in Kenya to monitor websites, blogs, social media and other online forums and report dangerous speech to relevant authorities.
Crandall said the information generated is compiled into a report shared with government agencies and civil society partners. "We give the report to police, the Ministry of Information, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, and the Independent Boundaries and Electoral Commission," she told Sabahi. "Our job is just to raise the red flag."
In its preliminary October 2012 report, Umati found that the majority of hate speech comes from identifiable commenters, meaning that users provide their real names or identifiable pseudonyms in their posts.
"The lack of caution when speaking online suggests that the speakers are not considering the negative impact their statements could have, nor are they worried about being associated with the dangerous statements they make," the report said.
Last week, the government shut down online forum Mashada after Umati found the platform was being used to spread hate speech.
In addition to monitoring activities, iHub bloggers also engage the public with messages aimed at neutralising inflammatory remarks made online, Crandall said.
Protecting freedom of expression
Though it is necessary to monitor and stamp out those capable of plunging the country into another cycle of violence, Ndung'u Wainaina, executive director of the International Centre for Policy and Conflict, said curtailing hate speech should not compromise constitutional rights.
"We must be careful not take clamp down on freedom of expression and opinions," he told Sabahi. "[Monitoring] should not be used as a pretext to intimidate critics of the government or establishment." He said conclusive investigations should be carried out before suspects are taken to court or websites shut down over hate speech.
However, Ombara, the NSCMM director, dispelled fears that monitoring online activities would infringe on the rights of Kenyans. "In everything that we are doing, we are following the law," she said. "What we do not want is a scenario where some people enjoy their freedoms by trampling on the rights of others."
Social media a double-edged sword
Ministry of Information Permanent Secretary Bitange Ndemo said it is possible to use social media to champion peaceful elections this year.
"Technology, especially social media, is often a double-edged sword," Ndemo told Sabahi. "It can be used for either positive or negative messaging. It is up to us to ensure that we responsibly use technology to advance our development."
Ndemo said Kenyans should use online platforms to interact with their leaders and hold them accountable for their promises, not to whip up ethnic and political emotions that can lead to violence.
In order to enhance peace, he challenged individuals and organisations to use social media to report hate mongers to help the government take appropriate action.
Alphonce Juma, a 27-year-old who runs the "my Aspirant my Leader" website, said technology should be used to empower the public.
"Instead of posting or creating websites that pit Kenyans against each other, I decided to go out and create a website that tells Kenyans all that they want to know about those who are vying for political posts, so they can be able to engage them and later make informed decisions at the ballot box," he said. "This is what technology should be all about."
Juma said his website gives political aspirants a platform to explain themselves while informing the public about the candidates' backgrounds, motivations for working in government and political platforms.
"I do this as a hobby because I find satisfaction in the feeling that I am helping my country move forward," he said. "Such small efforts, if carried out by every one of us online, will help keep the cycle of political violence at bay."