Kenyan elections 2013 – a tech fail or not?

Today’s blog post is written by Lina Palmer. Lina is Programme Officer at the Swedish Embassy in Nairobi working on Democratic Governance and ICT4D. With a background in change management consulting and ICT for education and skills development she has  a particular interest in ICT as a tool to drive change and trigger innovation. She considers Kenya to be somewhat of a perfect place to be right now in terms of such developments.

Many reasons lie behind Kenya’s status as the East African hub of tech-enabled innovation and the nicknaming of the capital Nairobi as the “Silicon Savannah”. The groundbreaking mobile money transfer system M-PESA handles transactions responsible for about one third of the country’s GDP and huge investments are made to construct the Konza Techno City to become a global technology hub. The tech savvy country planned for modern information technology to play a key role also as Kenyans headed to the polling stations on 4th March this year. Biometric identification kits, digital voter registers and real-time transmission of results via SMS were some of the technical tools planned to aid Kenyans to a transparent voting procedure and quick display of preliminary results. These “tech tools” did not deliver as promised on election day, but modern technology still played an important role throughout the elections period. Particularly considering the political debate and how it took shape in the social media arena.

Numerous bloggers and a constantly increasing number of Twitter and Facebook users have turned the Kenyan social media sphere into a vibrant and rapidly growing community. And it’s not only people in the Nairobi capital that are online; citizens from different parts of the country are making their voices heard through the new digital channels. This became particularly evident during the recent elections. Ahead of elections there was great concern that social media would be used to organize violence and spread hate speeches in parallel to hopes of mechanisms that quickly would report irregularities and prevent violence. Whether tensions and violence were taken off the streets and instead channeled through social media is difficult to verify but it stands clear that the big Kenyan media houses and mobile phone service providers blocked hundreds of thousands of hate messages during the election period. The National Steering Committee on Media Monitoring were busy identifying and dealing with bloggers accused of spreading hate speech. And only limited violence took place on Kenyan streets.

Perhaps more interesting is the political messaging voiced through social media. Leading Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation developed a social media sentiment tracker on their elections web site, indicating importance of the social media arena for political debate and campaign. The winning political coalition – Jubilee – led by the now sworn-in President Uhuru Kenyatta, was very active in their use of social media. Jubilee’s self-nomination as the “digital team” was not necessarily invented to reflect an active social media presence but rather their political manifesto to boost the Kenyan ICT sector, nevertheless the winning campaign team clearly invested heavily in social media. Tweets and Facebook updates kept the speed of light compared to those of other political candidates. Kenyatta, in particular, was an active tweeter – not a big surprise as he was mentioned already in October last year as one of Africa’s top ten tweeting politicians by British newspaper The Guardian. And already his first day in the Presidential office he encouraged Kenyans to “stay connected” through newly established State House Kenya Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The political debate, however, did not stop at the swearing in of the new President and his Deputy. Only a few days after the new rulers took office, an online initiative called “The People’s Court” was launched by civil society organizations AfriCog and InformAction. AfriCog was one of the actors that challenged the presidential elections results in the Kenyan Supreme Court, urging the court to invalidate the results due to electoral malpractices such as inaccurate voter registers, failing electronic transmission systems, and irregularities around the procurement of the electronic voter identification devices. AfriCog accepted defeat as their petition was ruled out in the Supreme Court but with The People’s Court initiative the organization aims to provide access to information about proceedings related to the 2013 elections and a forum for Kenyans to continue to share their election experiences. Opinions on the initiative were coming in already during the launch press conference and hundreds of comments were noted on an online article by one of the leading Kenyan newspapers the same afternoon.

Far from all Kenyans are online, but already millions of citizens are debating using social media. As long as journalists actively follow it, the social media debate can always feed into traditional print and broadcast media coverage and reach a wider part of the population. More and more people, however, go online to voice their opinions and we’ve seen far from the full magnitude of the social media phenomenon in Kenya. It will be very interesting to see how recent digital campaign arenas will continue to develop and see new ones emerge in the coming five-year period leading up to the next elections.

Lina Palmer

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