Seven years ago then Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan announced his presidential candidacy on Facebook. At the time the move was unprecedented and marked a significant departure from political tradition. His unusual choice seemed to symbolise a new dawn in Africa – the affirmation of social media as the new platform of choice for public communication.
The intervening years have seen social media emerge as a dominant force in the political space across the continent. This has been particularly true during elections, with Kenya’s recent contested poll as the latest example.
Kenya is a particularly interesting case study when it comes to the role of social media in politics. Kenya’s mainstream media is constrained by a number of limitations. These include reliance on government advertising, state intimidationand a partisan corps of journalists strongly wedded to ethnic loyalties. The recent elections show that it is losing its place as the pre-eminent agenda setter in the country. That role is gradually being taken over by social media.
Across Africa, mainstream media have traditionally been the unrivalled custodians and originators of the public agenda. They set the agenda, and the parameters of discussion. This dominance has been problematic. It has homogenised conversations and excluded many.
In Kenya, this dominance facilitated something particularly pernicious: thought control. Political discourse was in principle manufactured and not allowed to organically emerge and evolve. In part this was because the country’s media sector has been dominated by two media organisations, the Nation Media Group and the Standard Group, since independence. Further institutionalising this exclusion were the state-owned VoK/KBC TV and radio.
But this year, that dominance has been violently disrupted. Social media burst onto the scene as a new regime of information production and dissemination, operating unencumbered by the structural and political limitations the country’s mainstream media often face.
Subject of ridicule
Kenya’s mainstream media are now pejoratively referred to as the “Githeri media”. A badge of dishonour, the term was coined following what many regarded as this media’s obsession with the trivial – its unrelenting coverage of Martin Kimotho also known as the “Githeri man”..
Kimotho was photographed eating githeri, a humble meal of boiled maize and beans, out of a polythene bag while queuing to vote in the August general elections. A voter who took the photograph shared it with friends before it went viral. It was was then picked up by mainstream media who turned Kimotho into an unlikely celebrity.
For days across local newspapers and TV stations “Githeri man” became headline news. An overnight celebrity, he was feted by companies as the mainstream media cheered on by giving him extensive coverage. He has recently received a Head of State Commendation..
The more serious issues about the highly contested elections, including electoral irregularities and malpractices, were being debated elsewhere – on social media websites, most notably Facebook and Twitter.
The characterisation of Kenya’s mainstream media as the “Githeri media” underscored two important issues. First, it underlined the public’s loss of faith in the mainstream media. The consequence was that many moved to alternative platforms for news.
Second, it was a subtle indictment of the media as irredeemably partisan. While boiled maize and beans is a meal enjoyed by many communities across the country, githeri actually indexes a specific community – the Kikuyu. The coded message was that the mainstream media was controlled by – and therefore supported – Uhuru Kenyatta’s government.
The shift to social media was not particularly surprising. Internet penetration in the country is staggeringly high at 90%. The average internet penetration rate on the continent is only 31%.
More important is what Kenyans use the internet for. According to Portland Communications, a UK based political and public relations consultancy firm, Kenya has arguably one of the most active online communities on the continent after Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. Equally notable according to their report “How Africa Tweets” is that one out of 10 of the most popular hashtags in 2015 in Africa relate to political issues and politicians. This compares with only 2% of hashtags in the US and the UK where Twitter is used mainly for commercial campaigns.
Kenyans on Twitter
Significant social and political issues are discussed by Kenyans on Twitter – or KOT as they are popularly known. The platform has become a powerful source of information and a point of reference for those disillusioned with the country’s mainstream media. (This is true for the Kenyan media too.)
But the disruption of the agenda setting role of mainstream media doesn’t mean that social media is providing the required corrective. The Kenyan social media scene is renowned for both its bravery as well as its bad behaviour.
It’s force for good was shown when during the elections Kenyans on Twitter called politicians to order. Once polling started this group forced the electoral commission to respond to various allegations of electoral irregularities.
But social media also had served as a platform for hate speech as many exploited the fact that they could post anonymously to abuse and threaten individuals and communities without fear of legal retribution.
Not a level playing field
Less talked about are also the various “divides” that hinder the role of social media platforms as credible alternatives to the mainstream media.
Digital media demands levels of digital literacy. This remains uneven because participation is determined in large part by class, age and geography. The progressive possibilities of social media are therefore tempered by the way in which it operates.
Significant too are the hierarchies that have emerged online. Those with the largest following tend to be politicians, celebrities, media personalities and those familiar with the digital literacy necessary to build a following. What these people say dominate conversations. The nature of agenda setting is thus personality driven. This is one of the most fundamental flaws of the online communication economy, and one that demands that we develop a deep circumspection about this new dawn in Africa.
This article was first published in The Conversation.