Confession: it took me a long time to get into Twitter. I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was over, especially because I already had Facebook and email. As far as I was concerned, between my phone, email and Facbeook, if anyone wanted to get in touch with me badly enough, they knew where to find me.
Tracking the build-up and reaction to the Kenyan election on Twitter over the last month has completely changed my perspective. Facebook is a small echo chamber that allows you to quantify the support you have from amongst people you already know.
Twitter takes that concept to the next level – out of a random sampling of the millions that use it, how many people can agree or disagree with a 160 character thought you have?
Foreign journalists have been learning the hard way over the last month, firstly that there are several thousand Kenyans on Twitter, and secondly that they are not afraid to disagree with their thoughts.
Six years ago, in December 2007, we Kenyans were helpless and paralysed, as alarmist reports often inaccurately depicted our country as another in the litany of failed states in Africa.
It’s not that there was no violence in Kenya – there was more violence than we had seen since 1967. I personally experienced some of the worst of it. So, I can speak about the fear and the intense sense of loss that come from having a life prematurely taken away from you as a result of something as relatively meaningless as contested politics.
Still, watching a (another) CNN journalist completely mistranslating the cries of a protester, waving a white flag in the streets of Nairobi – he was crying for peace, the journalist translated it as a cry for support for his ethnic group – was degrading and offensive. It certainly decreased any esteem I had for Western international media houses.
After that, I wrote emails to CNN and they ignored them. This experience of “voicelessness” over the construction and dissemination of my national narrative was partly what prompted me to write blogs and op-eds.
Kenyans embrace technology
Now, in 2013, Kenyan presence on the internet has expanded dramatically and it is harder to get away with such overstatement. But once again, CNN has become the culprit. One journalist, who reported on the potential ethnic violence in Rift Valley province, learnt the hard way that Kenyans are determined to take control of their narrative this way.
A few assumptions seemed to underpin the dissemination of the alarmist report. One: that Kenyans wouldn’t see it. Two: that Kenyans wouldn’t react to it. Three: that any reactions recorded wouldn’t be disseminated. All of these assumptions have been confounded. And how?
Is it possible that the journalist is right about some people preparing for violence? Absolutely. That’s not what Kenyans took issue with. But it was the presumption that such individuals were the norm rather than the exception, and the failure to acknowledge the great lengths people went to prevent violence during and after the election.
It is the demeaning fuelling of the idea that more Kenyans are incapable of grasping the fundamentals of electoral politics than those that are capable.
The backlash on Twitter under the hashtag #someonetellCNN has revealed some interesting developments in Kenya. For one, international media continues to underestimate the extent to which technology has been adopted by the society.
Unlike more complex platforms like blogs or even Facebook that require significant bandwidth, Twitter is precisely the kind of platform that lends itself to quick dissemination and adoption over an easily available mobile phone. It makes it easier to rebut unfounded claims with evidence – including pictures of opposing candidates’ supporters linking arms, dancing in the streets together and generally avoiding trouble.
The second revelation is that a lot of Kenyans are determined to take control of their national narrative. Obscured by the “underdeveloped Africa” narrative, it is easy to forget that Kenya has one of the highest literacy rates in the global south (UNICEF estimates as high as 87 percent).
Poverty is not always a direct corollary to literacy and in so far as the former may lead to disempowerment, the latter allows individuals to claim any spaces with low barriers to entry to repossess their power.
What Twitter does successfully is allowing those who may not be able to claim power in the context of traditional media (with higher economic barriers to entry and with more entrenched power dynamics) to claim it in 160 characters or less.
Poor people always have ideas; literacy allows them to articulate these ideas in the language of those in power. Technologies like Twitter allow them to broadcast these ideas to a wide audience, to court support for these ideas and to form networks with like-minded individuals.
The importance of national narratives
Narratives in politics and society are important because they shape the way we interact and interpret the subject matter.
The recent emergence of the “Rising Africa” narrative is case in point. Africa hasn’t done much to court this kind of attention. But European and North American firms – facing crumbling economies in their home countries – need to garner support for expanded investment abroad in “virgin” markets.
To justify this, they support and encourage Western media houses – which are in the end, part of the systems in which these corporations operate – to perpetuate the idea of a “changed Africa” that can be “successfully incorporated” into the global economic system.
In Kenya at least, this meta-narrative is being approached with a great deal of cynicism and trepidation. There is no longer a blind belief in whatever non-Africans are selling, in part because opportunities to critique these goods are a dime a dozen.
We welcome the investment, but we critique it and challenge the investors to do so on our own terms. We welcome the international aid, but now we want it to be given in a different framework.
Kenyans have always been deeply suspicious (and with good reason) of the motives of foreigners in this way; platforms like Twitter make it possible to express these suspicions in the language of the System.
As I’ve said in another platform, I don’t necessarily believe that Twitter “causes social change” or “drives revolutions”. What it does successfully is allowing ideas to gain traction, while allowing critics to challenge them.
Twitter is like a large in-ear translator: it allows the powerful and the disempowered to communicate with each other, to articulate their concerns in a mutually intelligible language (technology). The powerless are able to speak out with less fear of repercussion; the powerful are forced to react and respond to maintain the appearance of egalitarianism and approachability.
It is into this minefield that CNN stomped on with its report. Colloquial US lingo has a wonderful term to express the storm that superseded it – “the side eye” which urban dictionary defines as:
a facial expression expressing one’s criticism, disapproval, animosity or scorn of varying levels of intensity… often an invitation of a fight or confrontation of some sort.
Yes, CNN was at the receiving end of a collective, national side eye from Kenyans on Twitter at the idea that we would allow our national narrative to be hijacked again, either by criminals looking for trouble or foreign journalists determined to portray us as a nation of criminals itching for a fight.
It is still too early to call the results of this election or to foreshadow its outcome, but I am cautiously optimistic. Everything I’ve seen on Twitter and on the blogosphere over the last few months have given me plenty of reasons to anticipate that bloodthirsty journalists will be proven wrong and that Kenya will be alright.
Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and political analyst, is currently a graduate student at Harvard Law School. She occasionally blogs for Pambazuka Press.
Follow her on Twitter: @Nanjala1