On Inauguration Day, Young Kenyans Campaign for Peace on Social Media

Kenyans say they hope to see a decrease in the hate speech that has infested social networks after inaugurating Uhuru Kenyatta as president today.

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On Inauguration Day, Young Kenyans Campaign for Peace on Social Media

Fred Manundu uses his mobile phone to browse the Internet in front of a peace banner in Nairobi.

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Part 2 in a Series
After the Verdict: Charting a New Course in Kenya

NAIROBI, KENYA – When David Ndira is not in class at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology in western Kenya, he spends most of his time on Facebook. But throughout Kenya’s election process, he replaced his usual personal updates with pleas for tribal unity.

The March 4 elections were generally peaceful, but disputed election results sparked an online war of words between supporters of victor Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kenyan who is Kikuyu, and those of rival candidate Raila Odinga, who hails from the Luo tribe.

Kenyatta’s inauguration today in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, closes the book on an extended election process. In a shift from the violence that followed the 2007 elections, Odinga challenged this election’s results in the Supreme Court, which upheld Kenyatta’s victory on March 30.

Throughout the initial presidential campaigns, Ndira says he tried to use Facebook to educate his friends on the importance of voting for candidates based on their capacity for public office, as opposed to their ancestry or tribal affiliation. The response was discouraging.

“I received a lot of negative comments from my friends,” he says. “Most of them were emotional and spewed words that bordered on hate speech. It struck me that even though we, the youth, do not identify ourselves with tribes, the election was going to divide us.”

These heated comments disappointed Ndira, as he says that these days, young men in Kenya are typically more likely to identify with their favorite European football clubs than with their family’s tribal heritage.

To combat the hatred he saw the elections incite, Ndira launched a campaign on Facebook by creating a page called “Operation STOP Ethnicity and Hatespeech.” He says he used the page to target youth, as this generation is most active on social media.

Throughout the extended election process, social media users divided into tribal camps and traded fiery posts and tweets. Officials at the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, a government agency tasked with mitigating tension among Kenya’s tribes, express frustration with their attempts to investigate hate speech on social media. Meanwhile, young Kenyans promote peace on social media with today’s inauguration of Kenyatta.

Kenya is a diverse state. The country is home to at least 24 distinct people groups, according to its most recent census data from 2009. In terms of population, the Kikuyu, Kenyatta’s tribe, represent the largest group with more than 6 million Kikuyu living in Kenya. The Luo, Odinga’s tribe, represent the fourth largest group, with a population of more than 4 million people.

If Kenya’s Facebook users constituted an tribal group, it would be the ninth largest in the country. There are 1.8 million Facebook users in Kenya, according to Socialbakers, a social media analytics company.

In 2007, disputed election results sparked violence that killed 1,300 people and displaced more than 350,000 people, according to the Kenya Red Cross Society. In 2013, members of the Luo and Kikuyu tribes instead used social media to square off after election officials declared Kenyatta the winner of the March presidential race.

Odinga, who lost by a slim margin, challenged that outcome in Kenya’s Supreme Court, asserting that technical problems at polling booths had distorted the vote. During a week of deliberations, voters unleashed their anger on social media.

Supporters of Odinga alleged that the Kikuyu people had stolen the election and called members of the Kikuyu tribe “thieves.” Ndira says the worst comment that he saw on Facebook accused the Kikuyu of owning Kenya and using that power to decide the presidential election.

Kikuyu social media users hurled back insults. One user, a supporter of Kenyatta, referred to the Luo people as “uncircumcised gorillas.”

On March 30, the Supreme Court upheld Kenyatta’s victory, leading to an increase in online vitriol.

Although a month has passed since the elections, Grace Kerongo, a journalist and blogger, says the volume of tribal warfare has been fluctuating depending on each day’s news. Before and immediately after the Supreme Court ruling, people exchanged many insults on social media.

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, pages promoting hatred based on tribe or ancestry formed on Facebook, Kerongo says. One such page is “Nyanza SI KENYA,” which translates to “Nyanza is not Kenya.” Nyanza is a province in western Kenya and a political stronghold of Odinga.

The page has more than 19,000 “likes” on Facebook. In one recent comment, a user called Kikuyu people “professional thieves” and threatened to block all Kikuyu users from the page.

Since the Supreme Court ruling, Kerongo has seen the social warfare subside. But she expects posts promoting hatred between certain groups to increase today during Kenyatta’s inauguration. She prefers to keep the peace.

“Personally, I block those people posting hate messages because I don’t want to feel offended,” she says.

Officials at the National Cohesion and Integration Commission say their attempts to track down social media users spreading hate speech have been frustrating.

Its website defines hate speech as “the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior, or display of any written material with the intent of stirring up ethnic hatred.” Kenya’s 2010 Constitution does not protect this type of speech.

Chalo Mwenji, a legal officer with the commission, says it has trouble identifying hatemongers on social media, as some do not use their real names. It can track suspects only through their IP addresses.

Commission officials take screen shots of all offensive posts for evidence. But some culprits are smart enough to remove posts, comments and tweets within minutes, Mwenji says.

He says that asking Facebook administrators to delete controversial pages has proved fruitless.

“Unlike in Kenya, where freedom of speech has limitations, in the U.S.A. jurisdiction, there are no limits,” Mwenji says. “So when we ask Facebook administrators to pull down a page with abusive content, they say they see nothing wrong with the page.”

The commission does not have the power to prosecute. Mwenji says officials can only recommend a suspect to Kenya’s director of public prosecutions. The commission is currently investigating four people to determine whether to recommend charges of preaching hate on social media.

One of these people, Dennis Itumbi, a journalist with a large social media presence, says he wonders how the commission is carrying out its investigations because it has not asked him to surrender his phone or computer. The commission announced that it was investigating him a month ago, but he has not yet received charges from the state.

“If it takes them a whole month to investigate a single Facebook page, how long would it take them to investigate 20 million pages?” he asks.


Meanwhile, Ndira continues his campaign to promote online peace among Kenya’s tribes. He says he is optimistic about a decrease in hostility. He has changed the name of his Facebook page to “I Love Kenya my Country” to reflect a broader focus in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.

Tribal wars have subsided, he says. As Kenyans inaugurate Kenyatta today, he now calls for unity among all citizens despite how they cast their votes.