Counter-narratives to hate, incitement and irrationality abound on social media

Thursday February 19 2015

By NANJIRA SAMBULI
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There’s a lot of opinion-sharing on social media and blogging in Kenya. Unfortunately, there is not as much analysis, which is a much-needed exercise in humility for some. 

At the Bloggers Forum  recently hosted at the iHub, it seemed, for instance, that the working definition of the term ‘blogger’ was anyone who tweets, has a Facebook account, and maybe a website. Or, to quote David Makali from the forum, “bloggers are the younger brothers of journalists.” 

Problematic as that in itself is – the pitting of bloggers against journalists especially – I would like to address points raised by Njeri Thorne, in her piece We need mature debate on social media.

The long and short of my rebuttal is that there is plenty of mature debate on these platforms, just as there are many ‘immature’ attacks or debates.

To appreciate the unfolding impact of social media in Kenya, we need to curb the selective assessment of what happens on these platforms (cue Chimamanda Adichie’s oft-cited offering, on the danger of a single story).

BEYOND AFFILIATIONS

Let’s start with the point on which I agree with Njeri and other opinionistas of Kenya’s social media scene. Indeed, there are emerging segments of our community voicing their thoughts and opinions on Facebook, Twitter, forums, blogs and other interactive, Internet-enabled spaces.

As she rightfully says, they indeed are affirming or challenging Kenya’s state of affairs. This story is still writing itself, so at best, we will all do well to analyse it as it unfolds, but in context!

Njeri discusses the autonomy of social media users and their (lack of) commitment to critical-rational thought. Her sweeping declaration that online discussions are absent of ‘personal considerations on policies, governance and the state of affairs in the country’ leads me to think that she may not spend enough time on these spaces to see its manifestation.

As an example, I point her to the conversations that took place online in the build-up to, and during, the 2014 Saba Saba rally. Even though it seemed – through conversations and convictions, online and offline – that the country would tear at its already weak seam, there were interesting bits within these conversations that hinted at alternative Ukenya perspectives (ones that went beyond political, religious or ethnic affiliations).

ETHNICITY AS IDENTITY

 #EthnicHateinKenya was a very honest assessment of the issue in the country. I recall cringing at the sight of the hashtag, but as I analysed its content further, I appreciated the bold attempt to talk through ethnicity as an identity, in spite of the heightened political climate of the time.

I invite Njeri, and others opining on social media to take a closer look at the content in the subject matter. This is simply one example, in a publicly searchable Internet archive of many.

Kenyans on social media will use humour, satire, vitriol, Bible verses, and yes, even hate, to express themselves on issues as they arise.

For one, it is fallacious to group Kenyans online into any homogeny; as Africa is (not) a country, Kenyans on social media are (not) all hate-mongers or ethnic-political bigots. Nor should this point constitute a mere ‘but’ or a silent admission in the many rants about Kenyans on social media.

Njeri mentions a simple litmus test: ‘ask the most vocal within the space to define debt ratio, let alone what Kenyan debt ratio is!’ Unless her take on this was based on experimentation, I have a difficult time taking this seriously.

COUNTER-NARRATIVES ABOUND

Even if it isn’t, there’s a whole other conversation to have about social network structures and the information flow architecture on each social network, the point here being Kenyans on social media (and especially on Twitter, the ‘digital public baraza’) engage in some of the most stimulating conversations and interesting thoughts on the state of our economy.

Yes, there are times when sense and logic take a back seat on social media. However, rarely is that the only angle in any conversation. Counter-narratives abound, to hate, incitement, irrationality and illogical thought, and are expressed in a truly Kenyan blend of styles.

‘Bait and switch’ approaches to analysing Kenya’s social media dynamic miss the point, risk tainting the bigger picture, and could be a bigger threat to the underlying freedoms enjoyed online than the very conversations that are (selectively) critiqued.

So, dear social media analysts, go beyond the surface and the highlights. The Kenyan social media scene is paving the way to (re)shaping and consolidating Kenyan identities.

Twitter: @NiNanjira