Election campaigning officially kicked off on May 28, as per the rules gazetted by the IEBC, even if rhetoric and electioneering activity indicate they’ve been travelling down this path for a while now.
This election season, the online space is as crucial a launching pad for aspirants as traditional media avenues have previously been.
What should we brace ourselves for this time around? More importantly, will the electorate be discerning of the current and oncoming dumps of information?
This information ranges from what various representatives claim to have achieved for their constituents to propaganda, a staple ranging from the saucy to the downright ludicrous.
Well, we are definitely off to an interesting start. On Saturday, May 27, a very interesting hashtag was unleashed upon the Kenyan twittersphere. #DavidNdiiExposed is perhaps best described as a bad attempt at propaganda, and going by reactions, it has not landed as its initiators may have envisioned
The matter of which forces sanctioned it is the stuff of speculation, with the ‘bots’ leading the charge being exposed for the fakes they are.
By now, we know that Kenyans on Twitter are a force to reckon with; a great mix of sleuths, analysts and commentators, with a guaranteed dose of humour and creativity.
A couple of weeks ago, we were treated to the news that the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica is reportedly pitching camp in the country. Reactions to this were varied, as expected, but it would seem that the news also got many armouring up for a season of misinformation, disinformation and counter-narratives.
It is quite something to watch all this unfold, primarily on Twitter.
PLUG INTO ANY DISCUSSION
#DavidNdiiExposed is supposedly a takedown of the esteemed economist and Daily Nation columnist. He is himself a force when it comes to putting ‘trolls’ in their place, but many have stepped into the discussion to ridicule the disinformation efforts.
Now that campaigns have kicked off in top gear, it is encouraging to see that Kenyans online are ‘woke’, and exposing propaganda attempts for what they are: attempts at distracting, perhaps even disillusioning, the electorate.
One can only imagine that more are coming our way and it remains to be established if the same has been unleashed on other social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp.
What we can assert with a degree of confidence is that #DavidNdiiExposed did not fly for a significant number of Kenyan tweeters.
The beauty of Twitter is that its architecture can facilitate engagement between different information nodes. Based on your curiosities, it is relatively easy to plug into any discussion taking place on the public-facing platform. Not so with Facebook, whose architecture is hinged on nodes of 'connectedness'.
You plug into discussions on Facebook based on who is in your network as a ‘friend’, or if a post is set to be public or visible by only friends, or friends of friends. Depending on who is in your network and what your indicated interests are, much of the political stuff may not cross your news feed.
Even more complicated is WhatsApp, which embodies what is termed as ‘dark social’, that is, “the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by Web analytics programs”.
Basically, we can’t really assess what is shared in WhatsApp chats, save for if ‘forwarded as received’ or shared back on other social media platforms.
While #DavidNdiiExposed has been exposed on Twitter for the cheap propaganda it is, we cannot say for sure that the same campaign has not found fertile breeding ground on WhatsApp or other messaging applications.
What is evident, however, is that Kenyans on Twitter are not as gullible as the politicos might like to believe.
Then there has been the curious case of ads and ‘sponsored posts’ appearing on online searches and timelines. Depending on one’s search history and networks of engagement, it would seem there also is in play a less overt mode of information propaganda.
Again, it is great to see how people are exposing these spurious attempts at reinforcing assumed biases, based on profiling of the Kenyan electorate’s beliefs, fears and political ideologies.
'GETTING OUT OF HAND'
This speaks to a heightened digital and media literacy among Kenyans online, though we can’t rest assured that this is the norm and not the exception.
In the coming months, we will require more vigilance than ever. More importantly, we will have to guard against distraction by these propaganda attempts, which would lead to speculating who’s behind them, getting and remaining trapped in reacting to them.
That could also be a strategy in play, to tire us with engaging the distractions, rather than in engaging on the issues and facts that will determine how we vote come August 8, and the difficult business of articulating what we want those seeking votes to address once in office.
Kudos to Kenyans on Twitter. This, yet again, is a strong case for internet freedom, though we can expect that as matters intensify, some quarters might consider the nuanced online political activity a threat.
After all, the communications regulator did indicate that they would consider shutting down the internet if ‘things get out of hand’. Who defines this and what counts as ‘things getting out of hand’ remain questions for which we must demand answers.
It will be very interesting to see if, given all the Twitter action, we will see a surge in usage of the platform in Kenya; new sign-ups and reactivated accounts.
All this calls for researchers to step in and analyse. As with the 2013 elections, we are witnessing yet another chapter of social media use in elections that merits studies that contribute to our understanding of how we are (re)shaping society through tech-enabled inter-connectedness.