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.

Taking Free Basics in Kenya for a spin.

(As posted on Medium). 

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while. At iHub, we believe in having user experience at the heart of consumer-facing technology. Also, I’ve heard many a Facebook exec counter the backlash with a valid question: how many advocates (for/against) have actually used Free Basics? So, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I dug out my Airtel Kenya SIM card (Airtel is the current sole partner) and took the app for a spin. (For the record, I’m testing out Free Basics on a Smartphone — a Samsung Galaxy S3 to be precise, will also test out on a feature phone in coming days).

Step one: Downloaded the app from Google Play Store (used my paid-for Internet, not sure if one can download it without incurring charges).Free Basics needs access to:


(Pretty light app: 1.18MB)

Step two: Read through the Data and Privacy Policies.

Step three: A cursory glance of the applications available on Free Basics in Kenya.

The gist of it

17 applications are available on Free Basics in Kenya. Two are news sites: BBC News and Daily Nation. Facebook and its Messenger platform also feature. One can also access Brighter Monday, one of the most popular job sites around, Scholars4Dev for scholarship information, as well as OLX, where one can search for real estate, cars, job listings and more (one can also submit an ad). Ebola Information, Facts for Life, Totohealth, BabyCenter & MAMA offer health information (the latter three focus on maternal and child health). You also have Accuweather (one can get weather information on local towns and cities, and one can search by postal code or city to access more info). Girl Effect offers ‘articles and tips for girls’. Jamii Forums ushers you to various boards to discuss news, platforms, politics and more. Supersport is available for sports updates. Wattpad offers access to free books and stories (none of which are by local writers, to my knowledge). Then there’s good ol’ Wikipedia.

That, for now, rounds up the ‘on-ramp to the Internet’ in Kenya. Would be happy to hear from any early testers if any of these apps weren’t there when the initiative was launched. Back then, Facebook had a pre-selected range of applications. Now, they say all it takes to have your content on the Free Basics platform is meeting the participation guidelines and technical specifications, i.e. developing for the platform, to meet zero-rating requirements.

Some Initial Observations (make of them what you will!)

While loading, a message reads ‘Visit popular websites for free with Free Basics.’

Popular, by whose demand?

Scrolling through a couple of news articles via the Daily Nation app, I noted that the comments section was missing. One can read and share a story, but not comment on it. To share, one has to leave Free Basics, where data charges apply. (Oddly enough, that was the case for the ‘share via Facebook’ plugin on the site).

Same thing with the BBC News app. Having found the BBC Africa section, and found a news item on Kenya, I sought a comment section, to no avail.

Over at Jamii Forums, I quickly scrolled to the ‘Kenya Forums’ section. One can see all the latest posts, and to participate, one has to log in. This presumes that one is already signed up for Jamii Forums. Meanwhile, on the main site (over on the Internet I pay for), there’s a pop up that asks me to register, since I don’t own an account yet. I would be very keen to observe a first time Internet user’s behaviour around this barrier to participation.

Jamii Forums screenshot off desktop
Jamii Forums screenshot off desktop
Jamii Forums homepage screenshot off mobile web
Jamii Forums homepage screenshot off mobile web
Jamii Forums homepage screenshot off Free Basics
Jamii Forums homepage screenshot off Free Basics

The Ebola Information app (from UNICEF) rightly indicates that while there are no known instances of the virus in Kenya at this time, many citizens are concerned, and that the site is presented to answer frequently asked questions. Great! Only…

Screenshot before clicking through ‘Read more’
Screenshot after clicking through ‘Read more’
 … It is not quite clear where the FAQ section within this app is. If one were to report this anomaly, they’d likely go to the ‘Contact’ section. There, one is treated to UNICEF’s contact information (email), and the Ministry of Health Ebola Hotline. Let’s imagine that this app is being accessed in some emergency or panicky situation. Fill in the blanks.

Over at the Wikipedia app, I couldn’t even see the option to edit a news article, let alone it redirecting me to the paid-for Internet. My hypothesis: it creates the notion that Wikipedia is to be consumed, and not necessarily contributed to. Imagine that carried across to Wikipedia as many of us know it!

Inconclusive Conclusion

The analysis above is selective, and I’ll factor in my own bias (wariness about this version or ‘ramp’ to the Internet). The argument for or against Free Basics takes many forms, primarily of a technical nature. I like to bring back what I call the ‘spirit of the Internet’: the ability to connect, consume, create, collaborate and correct (content)— all in equal measure. The above sets the scene for consumption, which is one component, but not the only component of the Internet. Much in the same way that in many parts of the developing world, the pervasive notion that Facebook is the Internet needs some serious correcting.

While I imagine that the Free Basics advocates would say that this only encourages folks to cross over to the open Internet to comment on the news articles or sign up for such popular fora, the assumption is that people are inherently motivated to go to that trouble. This, in a country known for peculiar mobile telephony use. While I don’t have the stats to corroborate my take, I imagine that this would dis-incentivise many from going to the trouble of all the clicks it would take to participate. I could be wrong, but I don’t have the stats.

One of the first things I noticed in step two, was the (lack of) Community Standards around Free Basics. Over at the Free Basics Participation Guidelines, it is stated that services are not rejected on the basics of their (Facebook’s) Community Standards. For reference, said standards address self-injury, dangerous organisations, bullying and harassment, attacks on public figures, criminal activity, sexual violence and exploitation, and regulated goods. So we know what does NOT form the basis of rejection of platforms as far as such standards go, so what does? (Or is that since it’s mostly a consume-first platform, these aren’t necessary?). What happens if, say, Free Basics in Kenya or elsewhere, has a niche audience that would form a prime target for some problematic organisation or ideology that violates the community standards? How can Free Basics users learn the principle of self-regulation, that governs paid-for Internet use, including Facebook itself? How do Free Basics users report inappropriate content?

Facebook have been saying that at least 50% of Free Basics users have crossed over to the open and paid-for Internet within 30 days of coming online for the first time. Having pushed a bit further on the stat recently, one of their Heads of Policy said that they stay on the paid Internet, though this isn’t part of the popular narrative on the conversion rates. Who else, other than Facebook, has access to these statistics? Giving the benefit of the doubt, say the statistic is actually true. What norms about what the Internet is, does Free Basics (un)willingly postulate? Facebook says that Free Basics doesn’t create a two-tiered Internet and refers to the above statistic. They also say that without such a program, more people are left offline, unable to realise the benefits of the Internet.

We all want as many people, if not all to be connected. But the idea of a ‘free’ Internet is a particularly nefarious one, leaving room for loopholes such as these, and actually creating various tiers to Internet access. This has been compared to tiered access to water and education. While some may say that some water or education is better than none, why is it that there are different forms to access? So some Internet is better than none at all (especially for the developing world). But, what constitutes ‘some Internet’? Who decides on what ‘some Internet’ is, and why are they the ones to decide?

There are many arguments packed into the zero-rating, net neutrality and Free Basics discussions, and it wouldn’t do justice to pack them into one article. I will try to tackle the various domains, from my perspective, in future posts.

Would love to conduct this exercise with first time Internet users. Currently thinking through the research design, to enable unearthing of insights on the Internet they aspire to access, versus versions such as Free Basics issued. For now, I welcome discussion and feedback on the above, and perhaps others to take Free Basics on a spin in their respective territories! After all, advocacy for a free(as in freedom), open and secure Internet will require evidence and not mere opinion.

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.