Those who denigrate digital activism are misguided

Sunday November 6 2016

By NANJIRA SAMBULI
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Taking stock of the past half-decade, my Ukenya has been immeasurably enriched by the new media spaces we occupy.

What started as a budding community of Kenyan bloggers and a close-linked network of Kenyans on Twitter who occasionally met offline is now a strong pulse of the nation.

Through social media, one can get a sense of the trials, tribulations, successes and victories across most, if not all, parts of the country.

I have dedicated this column to highlighting how digital citizenship is shaping up in our country. Kenyans are connecting. They are discussing, arguing, fighting, deliberating and sharing their hopes, dreams for and frustrations with, this country.

One cannot underscore enough that these spaces are definitely not fully representative. Nor are all voices equal. As with much of the physical world, agency in digital realms follows a set of factors: who has access, who was an early adopter, and is therefore a stronger node in the network, who inherently has agency and voice, and much more.

As argued many times before, the aforementioned factors must not deter us from appreciating the power of the internet in enabling and supporting our civic duties.

One area in which we stand to unlock massive potential for in Kenya is digital organising.

It is already happening; think of the many ‘hashtag’ movements starting online and heading offline to adopt more traditional forms, such as peaceful protests.

AUTHORITARIAN BACKDROP

This is why I am eternally dismayed by the school of thought that loves to denigrate those who may limit their political engagement to digital spaces.

You have heard it before: “Kenyans love to talk on [Twitter] but won’t show up on the streets”, “Kenyans make noise online but won’t show up offline”.

What is most frustrating about these arguments is they impose superiority; those who engage in street protests are more patriotic, more serious, more focused, while the rest are "armchair activists".

What is so wrong with "armchair activism", though? By nature of being dubbed a form of activism, doesn’t it abide by some principles?

Don’t people speak truth to power, albeit through different, arguably more democratised, media?

What is so wrong with one’s protest being to call out corruption in government and contribute to a hashtag that eventually mobilises some action, be it online or offline?

What do you know about the strength or courage it takes for many to even raise their voice, given the authoritarian backdrop from which we are still emerging?

BEYOND CONVERSING

Now, if the argument here were to be framed as "such digital actions are not enough", then I’m the first to agree. As I have written previously, we now need to move from conversing to organising, to climb further up the ladder of citizen engagement.

We spend a lot of time agonising, and agonising we must. This country is rotting, its soul is bleeding, its children are hurting and its future is daunting.

A lot of our engagement online and offline is often staccato-ed. We often have a series of events that are not synchronised efficiently through processes.

Yet the political and civic engagement online that many are keen to downplay is, in many ways, the link between the disjointed events: the protests, the petitions delivered, the cases litigated.

The online spaces we occupy are halls of collective public memory, of providing context and of sharing diverse experiences of blanket injustices.

Anyone who thinks this is inferior to singing on the streets and facing a teargas canister is misguided! New times call for new, additional forms of organising. We must make room for that reality in our conceptualisation of how to perform our civic duty.

However, we can and must do more with our digital citizenship. We must be attuned to the politics underlying the technologies connecting us, and we must acknowledge and appreciate that technologies are an amplifier and enabler, not the sole solution to the myriad of problems we are facing.

We can and must go beyond conversing, sighing, ooh-ing and aah-ing, and several of us are. See movements like #WhatIsARoad aiming to challenge how roads are maintained and #SayNotoManelsKE, challenging the adverse norms of women’s participation and voice.

Remember the digitally crowd-sourced questions presented to the government on Westgate, Nyumba Kumi, Garissa, or how ICT practitioners questioned problematic legislation, triggering a consultative process on what legislation is needed for the sector.

BEST OF ALL ERAS

All these are volunteer-driven and digital. Their impact is varied, but is slowly being felt. They are just a few examples of what’s happening, what’s doable and achievable.

These are all acts of digital organising in which I am involved and I look forward to acknowledging many others that may already exist or are in the works.

I can attest to how collective effort is being established through these initiatives. This is what is possible when you dedicate a few minutes of your online activity a day to civic duty.

Just as there were forms of civil society organising that got us through the 90s and the last decade, digital organising is an additional tactic in the toolkit that should not be looked down on.

Imagine what could happen if we combined the best of all eras: the tools, the minds, the strategies and the communities.

We could even transcend the barriers that divide us in society, like ethnicity and patriarchy. We would actually form new movements driven by national values that are often disrespected.

We can start restoring a strong moral foundation to drive our activities in the various political, economic and social sectors in which we work, or to which we aspire.

Don’t just agonise. Organise.

Digital, too, is a form of organising and an avenue for protest.

Twitter: @NiNanjira