Crowdsourcing Hate Speech: New Media and Violence in Kenya

New technologies and media are central to the Sentinel Project’s mission. However, just as these developments can help to prevent genocide, they can also be used to perpetrate it by inciting hatred and organizing violence. In her article “Putting Hate Speech in Context: Observations on Speech, Power, and Violence in Kenya“, Susan Hirsch outlines some of the cultural and historical factors behind Kenya’s post-election violence in late 2007. Among these, Hirsch mentions how the “exploitation of new media quickly became emblematic of the Kenyan conflict.” Of particular interest to many observers was the use of mass text messaging by politicians to fuel conflict between rival ethnic groups. While Hirsch believes that the significance of text messaging was exaggerated to some degree, it cannot be denied that this represented a new technological development in ethnic conflict.

More conventional media such as radio are highly respected by most Kenyans, who tend to view broadcasts as authoritative by virtue of their medium. When candidates used divisive language during the election to urge people to vote along ethnic lines to support ethnic interests, the radio made their message both acceptable and actionable. Cell phone usage is growing rapidly throughout sub-Saharan Africa and while text messaging does not currently have the same cultural value and credibility as the radio, it did have two major impacts during the Kenyan violence. First, for the first time ordinary individuals were given a greater voice and the power to express their hatred to a large audience. Essentially, hate speech had been crowdsourced. Second, text messaging facilitated participation by people in the Kenyan diaspora, who would normally have had less influence in the election and ensuing violence. Both of these developments are likely to be repeated in Kenya and other countries.

However, there are opportunities here. As Hirsch points out, Kenyan civil society leaders noted a significant increase in hate speech in all media in pre-election months. This was a significant warning indicator of impending violence and a missed opportunity for prevention. It should not go ignored again in the future. Another interesting case is how a Kenya phone company countered the hate messages by sending the slogan “One Nation, One People” to its users. While the value of such a measure is debatable, this is an unprecedented example of new media being used as a conflict space between those who promote ethnic hatred and violence and those who seek to discourage it.

While Hirsch and her examples focused on the Kenyan context, there is no doubt that there are important lessons to be learned here. The Sentinel Project will further study these developments, how they can empower persecuted peoples, and how they can discourage genocidal thinking and behaviour in potential perpetrators.

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