Technology is set to play a pivotal role in Kenyan elections due in March, just as it did in the last round in 2007.
But in contrast to the hate that it helped to disseminate a little over five years ago after disputed elections, fuelling an orgy of violence that left more than 1,000 dead and a half a million displaced, technology is now generating hope.
“Technology will be at the core of the March 4 general election, as it will be one of the most-watched elections in the world in view of what happened in the aftermath of the 2007 poll,” says Ory Okolloh, Google’s policy and government relations manager for sub-Saharan Africa.
“We are protecting the vote, protecting the electoral progress,” claims Daudi Were, one of Kenya’s preeminent bloggers.
By all accounts, these are not empty boasts. In a country with extensive mobile phone penetration and a burgeoning online community, Kenyans seem primed to battle election fraud like never before.
Signs emanating from the African nation in the run-up to the vote are encouraging. Google has launched a web portal, Kenya Elections Hub, where voters and journalists can track news and trends. Another crowdsourcing platform, Uchaguzi, is enabling citizens with access to SMS, Twitter, email, or Facebook to report incidents of illegal activities, hate speech and poll violence.
What next for Kenya as elections loom?
“It is all about sharing data so that people know what’s happening,” says Were.
Lessons clearly have been learned from the deadly mistakes of 2007. After a disputed vote, the incumbent president claimed victory and violence followed.
“Before elections, text messages were being used to perpetuate hate messages within communities,” says Francis Wangusi, Director General of the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK), the regulatory authority for the communications sector in Kenya. “As violence started, messages were being spread very fast to all corners of the country. People reacted angrily, the messages were not being censored. They were delivered as they were, full of emotion.”
Amid the anarchy, a group of bloggers and techies launched Ushahidi – “testimony” in Swahili – a crowdsourcing platform that pulled citizen-journalism reports from twitter, SMS, email and the web to map incidents of violence around the country.
Ushahidi did not outright halt the violence. But it did sow the seeds of an initiative that’s now been replicated elsewhere, such as in Nigeria, where Ushahidi’s monitoring initiative called “Reclaim Naija” saw over 300,000 reports from 4,000 different locations, and paved the way for Kenya’s reputation as “Silicon Savannah”.
The government has not lagged behind in tapping into technology either, and for the first time, Kenyans have registered for the upcoming vote through a biometric voter registration system. The system captured voters’ fingerprints and photographs, wiping clean the old system of manual paper registration, which allegedly resulted in more than two million “dead voters” casting their ballots in the 2007 elections.
The process was not without hiccups, though. When Larry Madowo, a technology reporter for Kenya’s Nation Media Group, checked his registration records, he found to his horror that he had been erroneously registered under a political party to which he never belonged.
“It’s bad for me: I‘m a journalist. I can’t be registered under any party,” he says.
Not one to give up easily, Madowo took to technology to seek redress. He tweeted his fraudulent registration findings to his 48,000 Twitter followers, with the hashtag #FakePartyMembersKE, and found out he was not alone.
The topic began trending on Twitter, and hundreds of Kenyans discovered that their identities had also been stolen, and that certain political parties had illegally registered them. Political parties and Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission are still arguing over who is responsible.
Social media has undoubtedly become a powerful instrument in uncovering irregularities. Kenya has more than two million Facebook users, and this figure has grown by more than 40 percent in the past six months. It also has the second-most active Twitter community in Africa, and most political parties and candidates have websites, Twitter handles, Facebook profiles and YouTube accounts.
“What stands out in this election is the use of social media,” Madowo says. “All candidates are using social media and amassing followers.” But whether this can translate to votes is the big question. “Does 100,000 likes mean 100,000 votes?”
“Last time, there was no way we could trace people. Right now, we believe there is fear in people. They know they will be traced.”
– Francis Wangusi
“You will tweet, I will tweet back,” said Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a leading presidential candidate, at the launch of his online campaign forum. He has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter.
But as election-related chatter grow online, so too are inflammatory speeches – which led to tribal violence in the past. A sizeable section of Kenya’s social media users are youth, the same frustrated demographic responsible for carrying out much of the violence.
Reporting ‘dangerous speech’
A project called Umati, based out of Nairobi’s iHub, is currently working to monitor, curb, and report this kind of “dangerous speech” online for the first time.
“No one has really monitored social media and dangerous speech in elections like this,” says Angela Crandall, who is managing the project. She defines “dangerous speech” as “hate speech with a call to action”.
Umati has five multi-lingual monitors, constantly scouring social media and blogs for dangerous speech. Software helps them sort and compile reports.
From 792 statements collected during the month of November, 78 percent were found on public Facebook groups and pages, and 226 of those contained one or more hallmarks of dangerous speech, Umati reported.
In a country with more than 30.8 million mobile phone users, much of the trouble following the last election was spread via SMS.
To try to stem the spread of hate speech via text, the CCK has recently passed legislation requiring registration of all mobile SIM cards, making each one linked to personal information and details.
“Last time, there was no way we could trace people,” explains Francis Wangusi, CCK’s Director General. “Right now, we believe there is fear in people. They know they will be traced.” He hopes this will minimise the circulation of hate messages.
“We will not relent and let an incident like 2007 happen again,” Wangusi warns.
In this round of elections, technology will be used to police technology in an unprecedented way.
“Technology can be equally good and bad, based on who uses it,” says Erik Hersman, one of Ushahidi’s founders and a prominent Kenyan blogger known online as WhiteAfrican. There is growing acceptance that although technology cannot fix the roots of Kenya’s tribal problems, it certainly can help in averting another tribal showdown.