By Kegurio Macharia
A strange consensus has emerged that something called “social media” is dangerous. That traditional media houses advance and disseminate this idea is unsurprising. Social media has been instrumental in exposing traditional media’s complicity with power and silence over the deeply and meaningfully political, a silence made glaringly evident when juxtaposed against the evidence adduced through social media. Thus, I am not surprised that various media houses have published articles and posted video clips critiquing social media and solicited interviews that denounce “social media” for inciting passions.
Yet the passion with which “social media” has been attacked by politicians and by the government should give us pause. On the one hand, such attacks demonstrate a claim advanced by media theorists: media has social effects. Social media is not simply what Jodi Dean describes as “communicative capitalism,” the constant circulation and re-circulation of affect that does not lead to any social effects. However, I raise Dean’s argument because it asks us to pause before attributing a sense of aggrandized agency to social media. It is not clear what precise effects, if any, the distribution of affect on social media has. My “like” on Facebook or “favorite” on twitter need not demonstrate any commitment to any particular social or political or cultural act. Indeed, it seems absolutely silly to criminalize the circulation of affect.
This point cannot be made strongly enough: the attacks on social media by the government are not simply attempts to censor expression and speech, both of which are protected by the constitution; they are attempts to criminalize the circulation of affect.
We also need to think back to 2008, when, as with the most recent election, traditional media outlets abrogated their duty to present the truth of what was happening. We should remember that this group and projects such as Ushahidi arose because the traditional media failed to report what was happening. We should remember that social media was central to documenting what was happening and to telling the truth. We should remember that social media has played an important role in holding the government accountable: in documenting abuses, circulating petitions, and offering a voice to the voiceless.
Muzzling social media benefits traditional media outlets and the government, both of which would prefer not to have citizen oversight.
One might reasonably object that “social media” is not being policed, that, in fact, what is being monitored and policed is “hate speech,” and that this is a worthy project. We need to examine how this policing of social media is happening.
As the elections proceeded, the traditional media reported on patriotically minded techies who were monitoring social media to detect and deflect “hate speech.” An article in The Star indicated that 4 unnamed people were going to be arrested for their hate speech on social media. More recently, the Daily Nation reports that 14 people will be charged for using social media to spread hate speech (http://www.nation.co.ke/News/
Those of us on twitter have noticed that since The Star announced 4 unnamed people will be charged, the political tenor of #kot has shifted in quite dramatic ways. It is no longer as political, no longer as engaged. Fear has crept in. This is what happens when power fosters paranoia. We should not forget that such paranoia has a long history in Kenya.
Bracketing, for the moment, the reasonable claim that the “vitriol” displayed on social media demonstrates the failure of national reconciliation, we need to ask what happens when social media is silenced through implicit and explicit threats of government retaliation. We also need to ask what it means when Mr. Ndemo, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication, informs us, “sites such as Facebook and Twitter will not be switched off by the government” (http://www.the-star.co.ke/
Social media has become a robust space for public expression, helping Kenyans with access to technology to engage with social and political processes from which they are still excluded by what Timothy Mitchell describes as the “rule of experts.” It should not escape our notice that to be heard in Kenya at the moment, one requires an advanced degree or some affiliation with a publicly recognized body. It should trouble us when those with access to traditional forms of media adopt the notion that social media should be monitored, policed, and muzzled.
Let me restate: we cannot and should not criminalize the circulation of affect, no matter how distasteful that affect. We should be very wary when traditional media and the government agree that social media should be policed and silenced. And we should worry even more when announcements published in traditional media sources that unidentified figures on social media are being sought compel Kenyans on social media to disengage from politics.