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The entrance of Kenya's National Assembly.

Fifth Estate

Social Media and Parliamentary Engagement in Kenya

Social media has been and continues to be a key information tool in the ever-evolving digital era. It holds great influence in the various spheres of life whether social, economic or political.

Over time, social media has developed into an avenue not only for entertainment but also for conveying and gathering information, for advertisement, including political advertisement as well as for targeted mass mobilization.

‘Social media’ describes a collection of online systems that allow for the production, storage and distribution of user-generated content allowing for the creation of a virtual social space where groups of users can come together in synchronous and asynchronous interactions.

These interactions can be structured (such as threaded responses to blog posts that are moderated), semi-structured (e.g. the discussion amongst groups of friends within extended Facebook social networks), or unstructured in nature (such as in Twitter, where topics are not ‘owned’ but tied together through the ad hoc application of hashtags that can be used to locate and link together posts by a variety of different users). The main social media platforms include YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

In the political sphere, the use of these platforms has made great impact in the development and entrenchment of political democracy around the world. From mass mobilizations during elections to vote-pitching by political parties and players, the influence keeps evolving day by day. Politicians especially have noted the peculiar nature of opportunities that are provided by the various platforms and have taken advantage of these opportunities to advance their political agenda.

Political parties use social media to directly and continuously engage with voters. Comparatively, social media provides greater reach and can amplify and mobilise political opinions in the remotest geographical areas.

The conventional, or what is now called mainstream media, has experienced reduced emphasis especially from political fronts. The fact that social media offers a direct link to the masses serves as an advantage over the often perceived biases in the mainstream media where editorial discretion guides what information is passed on to the masses.

Cognisant of this, politicians have invested in formidable social media strategies well assured that the information they intend to pass is conveyed directly to the targeted mass without any editorial oversight, save for the various community guidelines that ensure conformity to set rules and standards on such aspects as hate speech, violence and terrorism, misogyny, etc.

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World over, access to internet continues to grow exponentially. In a 2015 report, the UN noted that information and communication technology infrastructure are global and are considered two of the most important drivers of development and growth. According to the Communication Authority of Kenya, up to 90% of the population in the country has access to mobile telephony and the attendant internet connectivity. Out of these, more than

three-quarters have smartphones or other gadgets that can readily access the internet. This, therefore, puts social media as a potential information tool to a large number of the population.

In Kenya, technology, and more so social media, has been used by political players, including politicians, civil society organizations and state agencies, for different purposes. In seeking to elaborate the usage, several aspects will be considered for this article. These are; civic education and the development of democracy, political mobilization emerging issues.

As stated above, social media has played a key role in the development of democracy and civic education. Due to the massive reach of these platforms, more people are reached by the conveyed messages on political participation, and human and civil rights compared to those reached through the more conservative media channels. In Kenya for example, NGO’s and other non-State organisations have continuously raised public awareness in the management of public affairs.

The International Budget Partnership of Kenya for example provides, through their Facebook page, an analysis of the budget-making process and follows the implementation of each budgetary cycle. This helps in raising awareness and also providing a potential oversight avenue for Parliament by the public. The citizenry is made aware of the processes involved, their input and roles, if any.

Through such mechanisms, the populace becomes knowledgeable and is able to question government institutions on the use of public funds. Other organisations including Mzalendo follows the activities of Parliament and sends outs real-time tweets and posts on matters under deliberation. As an open Parliament, we are amenable to channels that seek to provide relevant information to the people on the activities of the Houses of Parliament.

Similarly, the Parliament of Kenya makes use of its own channels to inform and educate the public on its activities.

Through the Parliament of Kenya YouTube Channel, we are able to provide live coverage of parliamentary proceedings which can be accessed on the go. We also make use of Facebook and Twitter to update the public on the various activities of Parliament including the progress and effect/interpretation of any resolutions made.

These channels are also used as tools for public participation and for receiving views from the public as a requirement of Article 118 of the Constitution of Kenya[1]. Every Bill or subsidiary legislation is uploaded to the channels that are linked to the institutional website. The public is then able to access and make submissions if any on the matters before Parliament. We have noted great interest from the public with increased participation.

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Social media has also been used for mass mobilizations and consolidation towards specific causes. Notably, the importance of social media is not simply that it provides alternative channels for institutional political actors’ communication in structured election periods but also acts as an avenue where public opinion is formed, and where interventions in public opinion are possible by an increasing array of institutions and individuals.

Most of these channels make use of audio-visual presentations which are appealing and catchy to many. Pictures, said to be worth 1000 words, are used to convey chunks of information to the public.

Some politicians in Kenya have great social media following running into the millions and this offers access to them. For the public, the fact that one is following a certain political figure gives the impression of a one-on-one relationship thus becoming key opportunities for mobilization. This has been used to move the public toward certain directions for example in voting or supporting a social cause.

For example, when the northern part of the country was hit by famine in 2011, an initiative was established by the Kenya Red Cross Society to raise funds to supplement Government efforts to support the affected families. Using social media, politicians and corporates alike mobilized the public and this saw the raising of more than 100 million shillings. In the political realm, the last two general elections have seen greater voter turnout and this may partly be attributed to the mobilization in the social media.

Having noted the above, several emerging issues arise with regards to the use of social media, especially within the political front. To start with, there is a need to exercise caution in the information that goes out to the public. While facilitating civic engagement for more participatory democracy, social media is often misused for propaganda, hate speech, and disinformation campaigns, which can undermine the pluralistic foundation’s democracy.

In the endeavour to educate the people, politicians especially, should ensure there is no disinformation. Fact-Checking then becomes an important emerging issue within the social media platforms. It is an open secret that politicians would sometimes make use of disinformation for their own selfish political gains.

A legislation will be passed but the interpretation that is made is distorted or out-rightly wrong to create a predetermined notion.

This misinformation may be used to pass hate speech, targeted violence and terrorist activities. It is therefore fulfilling to note that some of these platforms, like Facebook, have elaborate fact-checking frameworks that ensure that only the properly verified information is posted.

Sadly, the current frameworks do not prevent misinformation but provide mechanisms for pulling down already posted data. You will note that sometimes, the information is usually already accessed by thousands of people before the fact-checking and pulling down happens. It is therefore incumbent on all users, especially political players to ensure only the right information is passed.

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As the Parliament of Kenya, we continue to monitor the social media activities and information relating to the institution and correcting any wrong information. However, as a proactive endeavour, we have embarked on opening up the legislative activities and involving all stakeholders to ensure that all resolutions of the Houses and their implications to the country are known to avoid misinformation from other quarters.

Finally, parliaments have to continue adapting to digital developments in the world. Whereas it may be said that social media operates as a community with its own rules of informality, legislatures should not lose their practices and traditions when engaging in the platforms.

They should therefore seek to conform to social media rules, while maintaining institutional credibility. In the end, it is for legislatures to be agile and to make use of the opportunities offered by the platforms to advance their constitutional mandates.

The author is the Speaker of the National Assembly.

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