Social Media and Journalism: A Changing Media Landscape in Kenya

In 2014, I had the pleasure of contributing to a fascinating production titled Exploring Kenya’s Media Policy Landscape: 1963-2013. Commissioned by the Media Policy Research Centre, I was tasked with exploring the impact of social media on journalism in Kenya. I assessed some conceptual frameworks on social media, social media’s effects on communication – the rise of citizen journalism, examples of social media users challenging traditional media (#someonetell…), as well as a critique of online citizen journalism. I also investigated social media adoption trends by mainstream (traditional) media, benchmarking the local against international media. The challenges and opportunities of social media for mainstream media, as well as social media’s implications for media policy (e.g. whether bloggers are journalists) round up the chapter contribution.

The working papers collection was officially launched on 27 February 2015.

Below is the executive summary of the working paper, and a link to the publication download (page 66- 90). I welcome feedback and additional thoughts on other factors to consider. (It was also very interesting and saddening to note the dearth of analysis on this subject matter during my literature review).

The [social media and journalism] chapter explores the impact of social media on journalism, with examples and analysis anchored in the Kenyan context. It begins with an overview of social media, the tools and practices shaping it, and dives deeper into the social media landscape in Kenya. Social media structure and adoption is increasingly challenging ‘traditional’ channels and agents of information dissemination in the country. Journalists and mainstream media are no longer the sole or primary source of breaking news. Citizens are now more connected with each other through platforms that enable conversation, co-creation and in some instances organizing towards collective action. Through social media, and citizen journalism, there has been an amplification of voices, groups and communities that would not otherwise attract mainstream media attention. Several examples of how social media users have challenged both local and international traditional media’s reportage on national issues are highlighted. Social media use, however, is hinged on opting in, which is a factor of access and affordability of Internet and (mobile) devices. The limitations notwithstanding, social media continues to be adopted by Kenyan media, informing various practices such as setting up of blog sections on the media’s online portals, use of social media to stir conversation around news content, introduction of social media editors, and social media policy guidelines for journalists. The role of journalism remains significant, to sift through vast volumes of data and information generated, and make sense of it through application of journalistic skills. Though social media hasn’t yet completely disrupted journalism and traditional media in Kenya, its significance and ubiquity continues to rise and challenge the latter’s practices. How social media impact straditional media’s monetization streams as well as media policies is also discussed. The chapter concludes with the recommendation that more research and studies on social media in Kenya should be conducted in Kenya, to better inform policy practices. Journalism practitioners, trainers, researchers and policymakers should continue to assess and appreciate social media’s value in Kenya towards improving the media industry and creating a more democratic society.

Should Government Regulate Social Media in Kenya?

In the past week, we have seen one faux-pas in an Embakasi digital prayer cell group go viral, and the private recordings of a private affair between a DJ and a woman become a matter of ‘public interest’. All irreversible. All embarrassing to those in them, and entertaining and/or appalling to the (un)willing recipients.

 

These are some of the outcomes of a digital society, one that is set to continue growing in number, of both passive and active users. The gadgets in our hands and on our laps, or on our desks, are avenues to transmit all manner of content and data. “Traditional” disseminators of information find themselves contending for attention with the more connected and engaged audiences who have the means to create, produce and share news, gossip, (mis)information and more, at their disposal.

 

Kenyan media and corporate Kenya have, since the turn of the decade, been getting in the social media game. The creative ways in which social media managers for various brands leverage a trending topic to do some product placement is impressive, if sometimes inappropriate, and speaks to just how mainstream social media have become as channels for communication and marketing. There are dedicated social media channels for breaking and sharing news, and engaging audiences. Civil society, one would contend, is being redefined or reclaimed on social media.

 

We have, to some extent, a digital government. Indeed, this was the alternative branding for the incumbent government during the pre-2013 election campaign period. Many a politician can be found on social media. A primary motivation, especially for those who engage in their personal capacity, is to directly share, and perhaps connect with the electorate. As with mainstream media and corporates, politicians are having to learn that the rules of social media engagement are different. These are avenues for many-to-many communication; it does not suffice to merely broadcast, no matter who you are.

 

The question many are now asking is whether social media use should/can be regulated.

 

Recently, some Kenyan lawmakers called on the Communications Authority to draft policies that would enable Parliament to enact laws around regulating the use of social media. They cited the fast-moving, irreversible nature of information shared on these platforms. We have seen the good, the bad and the ugly presented by real-time sharing of information. In their case, the parliamentarians cited a case of the news of an MCA’s passing being posted first on social media, before the family of the deceased was informed. That, in fact, isn’t the first of those cases. Nor is the sharing of unverified information, rumours or misinformation new, much in the same way we are used to alternative versions of events being shared on these platforms.

 

The desire to regulate social media is not unique to the Kenyan government. It is an issue that comes up often in many countries, including our neighbours who have interesting laws in effect. Efforts to reign in electronic forms of communication through laws such as the contentious Security Bill, and the recent announcement by some Members of Parliament hint at reactive, rather than proactive and evidence-based approaches. The benefits of social media, and the Internet in general, in connecting people to each other, and to vast opportunities don’t seem to be at the fore of legislative considerations. Besides, regulating social media content is a game of whack-a-mole, at best. It has been offered that a more effective approach to dealing with bad speech or content, is to enforce more speech, free speech.

 

Digital literacy, in my view, is best acquired through continued engagement, and not necessarily trainings, especially in the pedagogical format favoured in most cases. Granted, there might be an appetite for the latter. It is through trial and error, and being corrected along the way by others with whom we engage, that we learn when to stop and question the veracity of a piece of information before spreading it. This is increasingly evident among Kenyans online. The confrontations and counter narratives presented around the news items capturing public attention this past week, and many other times before, indicate that it’s not easy to propagate one narrative, and for it to go unchallenged. This is starkly different from traditional forms of communication, where the audience often would not get a chance to share their views, especially in a sustained fashion, be it traditional media or politicians as the information nodes.

 

Lawmakers would do well to spend time better understanding how social media in Kenya are used, before proposing laws to ‘regulate’. The bad and the ugly are not the entire story.

 

To appreciate social media’s impact in Kenya, go beyond the surface

There’s a lot of opinion-sharing on social media and blogging in Kenya.Unfortunately, not as much as analysis which is a much-needed exercise in humility for some.  At the Bloggers Forum  recently hosted at the iHub it seemed, for instance, that the working definition of the term ‘blogger’ was anyone who tweets, has a Facebook account, and maybe a website. Or, to quote David Makali from the forum, “bloggers are the younger brothers of journalists.”  Problematic as that in itself is – the pitting of bloggers against journalists especially-  I would like to address points raised by Njeri Thorne, in her piece: We need mature debate on social media. The long and short of my rebuttal is that there is plenty of mature debate on these platforms just as much as there are many ‘immature’ attacks or debates.

 

To appreciate the unfolding impact of social media in Kenya, we need to curb the selective assessment of what happens on these platforms. (Cue Chimamanda Adichie’s oft-cited offering, on the danger of a single story).

 

Let’s start with the point on which I agree with Njeri and other opinionistas of Kenya’s social media scene. Indeed, there are emerging segments of our community, voicing their thoughts and opinions on Facebook, Twitter, forums, blogs and other interactive, Internet-enabled spaces. As she rightfully says, they indeed are affirming or challenging Kenya’s state of affairs. This story is still writing itself, so at best, we will all do well to analyze it as it unfolds, but to do so in context!

 

Njeri discusses the autonomy of social media users and their (lack of) commitment to critical-rational thought. Her sweeping declaration that online discussions are absent of ‘personal considerations on policies,governance and the state of affairs in the country’ leads me to think that she may not spend much time on these spaces to see its manifestation. As an example, I point her to the conversations that took place online in the build up to, and during the 2014 Saba Saba rally. Even though it seemed- through conversations and convictions, online and offline – that the country would tear at its already weak seam, there were interesting bits within these that hinted at alternative ‘Ukenya’ perspectives (ones that went beyond political,religious or ethnic affiliations). #EthnicHateinKenya was a very honest assessment of the issue in the country. I recall cringing at the sight of the hashtag, but as I analyzed the content further, I appreciated the bold attempt to talk through ethnicity as an identity, in spite of the heightened political climate of the time. I invite Njeri, and others opining on social media to take a closer look at the content in the subject matter. This is simply one example, in a publicly searchable Internet archive of many.

 

Kenyans on social media will use humour, satire, vitriol, Bible verses, and yes, even hate to express themselves on issues as they arise. For one, it is fallacious to group Kenyans online into any homogeny; as Africa is (NOT) a country, Kenyans on social media are (NOT all) hate-mongers or ethnic/political bigots. Nor should this point constitute a mere ‘but’ or a silent admission in the many rants about Kenyans on social media.

 

Njeri mentions a simple litmus test: ‘ask the most vocal within the space to define debt ratio, let alone what Kenyan debt ratio is!’ Unless her take on this was based on experimentation, I have a difficult time taking this seriously. And even if it isn’t, there’s a whole other conversation to have about social network structures and the information flow architecture on each social network. Point here being, Kenyans on social media (and especially on Twitter, the ‘digital public baraza’) engage in some of the most stimulating conversations and interesting thoughts on the state of our economy!

 

Yes, there are times sense and logic take a backseat on social media. However, rarely is that the only angle in any conversation. Counter-narratives abound, to hate, incitement, irrationality and illogical thought, and are expressed in a truly Kenyan blend of styles.

 

‘Bait and switch’ approaches to analyzing Kenya’s social media dynamic miss the point, and risk tainting the bigger picture and could be a bigger threat to the underlying freedoms enjoyed online than the very conversations that are (selectively) critiqued .

 

So, dear social media analysts, go beyond the surface and the highlights. The Kenyan social media scene is paving the way to (re)shaping  and consolidating Kenyan identities.

 

This article also appeared on the Daily Nation, on February 19, 2015.

Dear Kenyans, Tweet On!

Social media are playing a critical role in lending and amplifying citizen voices in Kenya today, contributing to what has been termed a ‘networked fifth estate’. Citizens are finding and amplifying their own collective voice; we no longer have to wait for the media, the opposition, civil society, religious institutions,the government or any other ‘intermediary’ to ‘speak on our behalf’ or to represent our views while we passively watch/listen.

 

There is no shortage of issues and problems plaguing Kenya today, heck, it’s like a cruel game of whack-a-mole. Coupled with the politicization of virtually every discourse on any issue in any sector, to be a diligent Kenyan, practising one’s constitutional right to public participation is no small feat.  

 

Our country, for all its misfortunes and blunders has one interesting tool whose impact we are just realizing: the Internet. We have Internet Freedom(the efforts to curtail them,though, are a discussion for another day). Coupled with the proliferation of Internet-enabled mobile devices at increasingly affordable rates for an increasing percentage of the population, we are well on our way to writing an interesting chapter in world history on use of these devices and tools to shape our democracy.

 

Take the controversial Security Laws (Amendment) Bill discussion for instance. Public discourse  began with news pieces from our media that were shared online. The interaction and reactions that ensued largely entailed demanding access to the draft bill that only journalists initially seemed to have access to. Relentless efforts by vigilant citizens tweeting at journalists and legislators to avail the draft saw it uploaded online for wananchi to read and scrutinize for themselves. Problematic clauses in the draft have been highlighted and discussed at length on Twitter for instance, arguably with more depth and diversity of insight and contribution than on traditional media’s coverage. Pressure to allow for public input to the draft has largely come from the online community, when it was noted that this had not taken place.

 

The turnout at the public forum earlier this week was low, despite the flurry of online engagement on the issue. This is where critics of social media’s impact come alive and scorn at the poor translation of online activity to offline action. However, it must be noted that different times call for different strategies. Traditional forms of turning up – physical rallies, street protests, town hall meetings- while significant, are no longer the only forms in which we can exercise civic engagement. We need to be open to the fact that they may no longer be relevant. Besides, don’t we have a  ‘digital government’, in the home of the ‘Silicon Savannah’? This, to me, says that it’s time to rethink public consultation forum models. The newspaper announcements for sessions that are held at impractical times during the week should not be simplified to indicate apathy. In this case, one afternoon session, in one location (Nairobi), on a law that would affect all Kenyans cannot be counted as representative by any stretch of the imagination.  Pressure must be mounted on government, at both county and national levels to rethink effective ways of facilitating citizens’ public participation in governance issues given the various contexts in which they operate. Online consultations have been leveraged before, and are flaunted as a success by the government. I refer to the famed crowdsourcing of contributions to the National Budget by President Kenyatta back in 2011 when he was Minister of Finance. Though we never got to know how citizens’ contributions contributed to the final budget, the approach taken heralded new thinking that shouldn’t be abandoned now.

 

Yes, social media use is not representative of the population. Yes, we have a long way to go before we can talk of all Kenyans being represented online. But this should not give cause to dismiss what is playing out in the online spaces that Kenyans occupy. I contend that these spaces are perhaps even more democratic than ‘offline’ barazas or whatever predated social media as a means for congregating citizens and having them engage in discussion. I contend that for the first time, more Kenyans are transcending physical boundaries and engaging with fellow Kenyans and the rest of the continent and the world, through these online social networks. We have, for a long time, been trying to figure out what national cohesion and integration in Kenya means. Some form of it is being practised on social media. Frictions abound, as they would offline. Insults are hurled, and every so often, dangerous speech (speech with a potential to catalyze violence) rears it ugly head. However, it doesn’t carry the day. Kenyans online must be applauded for the self-regulation mechanisms they engage in to minimize toxicity in their online space. Kenyans ‘cuff’ hate by naming and shaming such speakers, countering such messages, and even drowning them with more speech, something observed by the Umati Project that monitors online public conversations to better understand hate speech dynamics. What is interesting about this trend is that it primarily stems from the citizenry. Calls by media, civil society and even government to ‘stop hate speech’ cannot be said to be the most impactful in easing any online tensions that often arise. The ‘traditional authorities’ do not always hold sway in the online space.
It would be unwise to underestimate the significant role social media is playing in aggregating citizen voices on issues affecting them. So dear Kenyans, tweet on!

 

This post also appeared on the Daily Nation, on December 17, 2014. 

Kenya Power: Help Us Help You!

Kenya Ingependa Kumeta. I propose this as a working slogan as you forge your way to efficiency, oh dear transmitter, distributor and retailer of electricity. You see, Kenya Yameta essentially is untrue; makes for a better fit alongside your Vision 2030 strategic plans.

 

 (Image Courtesy of Eugene Nyawara)

Continue reading “Kenya Power: Help Us Help You!”

#SomeoneTellCNN That Kenya Is Watching How They Tell Our Stories

And we are proving that we sure can cause a stir about faux-reporting.

The genesis. A newscast painting this picture of an attack on one of Nairobi’s bus stops on Saturday evening.

(Image courtesy of Zosi) Continue reading “#SomeoneTellCNN That Kenya Is Watching How They Tell Our Stories”

Dinner with PM- What Questions Would You Like Answered?

Last week, through his official twitter account,Prime Minister Raila Odinga,(all protocol observed), expressed his intention to dine with tweeps,and asked Kenyans on Twitter to nominate those among them who would make good representatives at the round table forums that he occasionally has with various interest groups.

It was all the buzz last Wednesday,with many a tweep nominating themselves,and others. I recall the #dinnerwithPM hash tag making its way to my timeline when my friend Adelle nominated me,setting into motion the reason behind this post. Continue reading “Dinner with PM- What Questions Would You Like Answered?”