, NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 5 – An article published by TIME magazine on July 11, 2011 hangs framed on a wall at the iHub research centre. On the first of a series of pages is a photo of an African woman in a green house with a phone in hand. The article is titled ‘Silicon Savanna: Mobile Phones Transform Africa.’
This certainly holds true for Kenya where close to 30 million of the country’s population are mobile phone subscribers accounting for over 75 percent of the population.
It therefore stands to reason that Internet penetration is not far behind with 12 million Kenyans subscribed and over 90 percent of them accessing the Internet via their mobile phones.
This makes Kenya one of the biggest Internet users on the continent coming second only to Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco.
The penetration of the mobile phone in Africa has until now been hailed mainly as a force for good. A case in point is M-PESA which has been touted globally for revolutionising the way banking is done.
Research done by the iHub, a community of technology enthusiasts, however reveals the mobile phone to be a mixed blessing with the general elections less than a month away.
“We embarked on this effort because of the influence that new media and social media apparently had on the 2007/2008 Post Election Violence (PEV) in Kenya. Anecdotal evidence from the 2007/2008 election cycle suggested that online media played a major role in the post election violence period,” Angela Crandall, one of the project managers, explains.
The project has been dubbed ‘Umati’ which translates to ‘a crowd of people’ in Kiswahili.
Opposite the framed TIME article is a screen behind which are five observers with their eyes on five monitors keeping a watchful eye on Kenyans on social media.
“This process is being carried out by five monitors, representing the five largest ethnic groups in Kenya to enable the translation of cited incidences from vernacular to the country’s official language, English,” Crandall expounds.
They are looking out for what is commonly referred to as hate speech but is more accurately described as dangerous speech within parameters set by Professor Susan Benesch of the World Policy Institute, and American University in Washington, D.C.
The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) formed to unite Kenyans and foster peace in light of the 2007/2008 PEV defines hate speech as; “that which advocates or encourages violent acts against a specific group, and creates a climate of hate or prejudice, which may, in turn, foster the commission of hate crimes.”
Concerned that this broad definition could be used to curtail freedom of expression, Umati narrowed their focus to what they define as dangerous speech. “This need for less ambiguity in the definition of hate speech motivated the project to rely on a more actionable definition, and hence the monitoring of dangerous speech.”
In order for Facebook posts or tweets to qualify as dangerous speech, Umati takes into consideration who the speaker is, audience, text as well as the social and historical context in which the statement is made.
The comments you make in response to an online news article or a popular blog post on the elections also fall under the scope of Umati’s monitors.
The 10-month Umati research project began in September of 2012 in the run up to the Kajiado North, Kangema and Ndhiwa constituency by-elections.
The Ministry of Information and Communication got involved in the research project when it discovered the use of dangerous speech online was much more prevalent than initially thought.
“Now alarmed by the amount, virulence, and variety of Kenyans’ posts attacking other groups of Kenyans online since October 2012, we are going beyond what was to have been a research project only,” Kagonya Awori, one of the researchers involved in the Umati project, explains.
The dehumanisation of persons from another tribe, religion or sex by referring to them as cockroaches, rats, weeds or stains are hallmarks of hate speech as it creates a mental imagery that rationalises ‘stamping them out.’
Comments bearing these hallmarks are the reason the administrators of the Mashada forum were impressed upon by the government to shut down.
“The lack of caution when speaking online suggests that the speakers are not considering the negative impact their statements could have, nor are they worried about being associated with the dangerous statements they make,” a report released by Umati reads.
That being said, Crandall is adamant that the aim of the Umati research project is not to infringe on the right of Kenyans to express themselves but to encourage them to express themselves in a conflict sensitive manner especially with the 2007/2008 PEV hanging over the country’s head.
“The findings will be used to educate the Kenyan public on what type of speech has the potential to disrupt peace and security in the country.”
The heated debate on freedom of expression versus the need to foster peace ahead of the general election aside, Kenya is once again forging the way forward in the technological arena like it did with M-PESA.
“Our flagship project has developed the world’s first systematic collection – as far as we are aware – of hate speech and dangerous speech in one country’s online space,” Crandall states proudly.