Technology can combat extremist ideas

Friday March 3 2017

The logo of the messaging app WhatsApp and that of the social networking site Facebook on a smartphone. PHOTO | ARNO BURGI | AFP

The logo of the messaging app WhatsApp and that of the social networking site Facebook on a smartphone. PHOTO | ARNO BURGI | AFP 

By KIMANI NJOGU
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In Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World, Wole Soyinka states poignantly that if the issue of the 20th century was that of race as the African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois had declared, the issue of the 20th century would be religion. But in reality, race and religion are interlinked. They are about belief and identity about ‘self’ and ‘other’. They perpetuate ideas that tend to exclude, dehumanise and stereotype if taken to the extreme. In the information age, these extremist ideas have found ready channels on the internet.

If the seeds of intolerance are being planted through technology, is it not possible to harness communications technologies to provide counter-narratives that speak to our common humanity? Can they not be can marshalled consciously and consistently to prevent and counter hate, cyberbullying, xenophobia and violent extremism?

Our recent work with high school students using technology to co-create content that enhances intercultural understanding shows the willingness of youth to reach out to each other despite their ethnic, racial, religious, socioeconomic and geographical differences. By amplifying commonalities and minimising the gaps that divide them, Amani Clubs are using technology to build bridges of mutual understanding and intercultural learning in our schools. Their potential was strongly shared during the Safer Internet Day events in Nairobi.

ALTERNATIVE CONTENT

Communications technologies can be used to anchor alternative content that promotes social justice, inclusion, peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding. They can be utilised to debunk racism, ethnicism, sexism, religious bigotry, and violent extremism. The life enhancing content would show our individual and collective responsibility to make the world a better place for all.

Through open platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, people can find learning opportunities quite distinct from the chat rooms being used to do harm. But that requires that progressives in governments, civil society, religious institutions and private sector team up with content creators to develop powerful alternative messages in varied formats. In doing so, articulate online communities will emerge to defend humanity locally and globally. With powerful voices expressed by online communities, a new culture of how to use the internet will emerge.

Quite often, governments assume that limiting free speech online and enforcing silence would solve the problem of intolerance, radicalization and online hate. It does not. On the contrary, dehumanizing speech finds expression elsewhere. It is the amplification of alternative voices and narratives imbued with reason and deep reflection about humanity that will win over the mind and hearts of internet users.

REGIONAL WORKSHOP

During a recent a regional workshop on hate, extremism and xenophobia in Nairobi, organised by Google Kenya, participants argued that while most people use social media peacefully, a vocal minority use it to promote hate, extremism and xenophobia. One of the main reasons these voices of hate can be so powerful is that often, they are the only voices that are heard. Countervailing viewpoints have often not been strong enough to oppose them. They need to be amplified. On a number of occasions, Kenyans on Twitter have stood up strongly to defend Kenya, most recently against insensitivities and copyright infringement by Fox News. This positioning can be expanded to also deal with pressing national, regional and global challenges.

As Kenyans get ready for the general elections and with the spectre of extremist rhetoric dominating online platforms, we cannot afford to assume that things will sort themselves out.

Technologies are for enhancing our capacity to live in freedom and dignity. They are not for limiting our imagination.

Prof Kimani Njogu is director, Twaweza Communications.

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