BY MARTIN MULI The unprecedented growth in digital communication has undoubtedly given Kenyans a platform for political activism. With the General Election barely three months away and intense political activities on the social networks, it is safe to conclude that social media’s influence in the polls will be much stronger than before. The impact of social media as a tool of political engagement is already being felt profoundly with the growth in the various social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Youtube. According to the latest annual report, “The State of the Internet in Kenya 2016” by Nendo, there are 6.1 million Kenyans on Facebook, up by 1.8 million users registered in 2015. The number of monthly active users on Twitter stands at 2.2 million with a million daily active users. This is up from the 700,000 monthly active users estimated in 2015. WhatsApp is an extremely popular chatting platform in Kenya and it is estimated to have 10 million users while the likes of Instagram and LinkedIn are estimated to have 3 million and 1.5 million, respectively. Politicians have discovered the quickest way to make news is to put out a statement or comment and avoid paying for ad space. Citizens have also found a more reliable way to be heard by incumbents and aspirants is to tweet them directly or tag them on Facebook posts using the latter’s personal accounts without going through their personal assistants or secretaries. Experts attribute social media’s powerful influence in politics to the ability of the various platforms to hasten politicians’ and parties’ communication and reach potential voters in a more targeted manner and vice versa without the intermediate role of the traditional mass media. Last year’s polls in America better illustrate how social media has gained popularity as a tool for political communication during electioneering period. According to data from SocialFlow, a social media management company whose software handles news dissemination for many of the country’s top media organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, Donald Trump, who emerged the winner on a Republican ticket had an unprecedented reach through tweets, shares and likes. In a year, the country collectively spent more than 1,284 hours reading about Trump on social media. If he sought similar attention by buying ads, Trump’s social reach would cost $380 million (Ksh38 billion). With majority of the Kenyan voters being youthful, digitally literate with access to smartphones and the Internet, the candidates to beat in the August polls will be the ones who effectively use social media. Through the various platforms they will easily conduct targeted grassroots-based mode of citizen campaigns and voter mobilization. The low side of social media is that if not used responsibly, it may lead to distortion of public discourses and fan ethnic animosities in young democracies like ours that previously witnessed ethnic-instigated violence. This is why as we approach the polls, it behoves the general online community to exercise responsible use of digital platforms for political communication. Although the social networks offer the fastest means to disseminate news, it doesn’t enjoy the professional gatekeeping role of editors in traditional media. This has often given rise to cases of fake news hence, the need for verification of any information received before sharing on the various platforms. Use of languages with negative ethnic innuendos must also be avoided as this is what spews the hatred venom that may lead to flare-ups especially in the aftermath of the elections when certain groups are not pleased with the outcome. Unless the Kenyan online community exercises caution in use of digital social networks prior to the Election Day, they will blame themselves in the event the Government decides to shut down the Internet as happened in neighbouring Uganda and Gabon. The good news is that there are a number of initiatives going on to ensure responsible use of social media during and after the electioneering period. The Kenya Social Media Awards, a platform that recognises and rewards individuals and organisations that have made sigificant contributions to growth of social media, for instance is partnering with Safaricom and OLX Kenya to educate various communities on responsible use of the digital networks. Through the strategic partnerships, the organisations are supporting various digital platforms like the SOMA Connect, which engages various corporate organisations on effective use of social media enhancing brands’ equity and empowering citizenry. Various corporate organisations rely on social media for profiling and brand enhancement and any irresponsible use can cause unforetold reputational damage. The Annual Olx SOMA Awards on the other hand focuses on recognition, education and empowerment of targeted communities on use of social media. Through the platform, various communities are able to make positive use of the media as a tool for social transformation. With more of such initiatives, social media enthusiasts will be instrumental in shaping the outcome of the polls without pandering to misinformation and hatred that may fan the embers of ethnic animosities during the electioneering period.
Martin Muli is the CEO of Eyeballs Limited and Director of the Kenya Social Media Awards.