As the world woke up to the Covid-19 reality, tech-thinkers across different parts of the world were already grappling with the idea of using social media capabilities as part of the new normal. There is no doubt that a thin line exists between virtual and sensory reality as the latter moves to define the former in ways that have brought about new challenges and opportunities, from fake news, mis-information, disinformation and infodemics. Social media technologies have given birth to digital peacebuilders in digital forums, which will forever change the peacebuilding landscape in Africa and elsewhere in the world.
Maskani, a Swahili word for “dwelling,” is used by tech-thinkers from Kenya and the USA to define the most ambitious digital peacebuilding initiatives, and we have chosen it as the name of our pilot study in Western Kenya. Our study, Maskani, utilizes WhatsApp and Facebook and features a Luo traditional house as its icon. This architectural design is a peaceful symbol of the African communal culture and represents “communal belonging” (Harambee), “co-existence” (Ubuntu/Utu or Humanity), and “collective freedom” (Uhuru) – as envisioned in the project. The icon also capture the image of a granary, traditionally called Dero in Luo (1), representing the promise of peace.
The project works with six universities in Western Kenya, involving over 60 students, 12 faculty members, and expert facilitators. Our participants all work from the comfort of their homes, using innovative approaches of digital problem-solving to address the usual challenges facing Kenyans. These challenges focus mostly on ethnic politics in the context of Covid-19, and other problems like intolerance and extremism (both political and violent extremism).
Maskani was born out of a collaboration between the Center for Media, Democracy, Peace and Security, Rongo University, and Build Up, who all came together at BuildUp’s 2019 conference in San Diego. We began the piloting with 10 student volunteers and two faculty members from Rongo University. They were trained by BuildUp in a one day workshop in Kisumu in March 2020. This initiative is a good example of the mutating nature of peacebuilding, the most recent global shift being necessitated by ecological factors. Our field’s need to adapt to Covid-19 has pushed us to further develop an innovative, “new normal,” where digital peacebuilding is a necessary component of many of our designs moving forward.
The aim of the workshop was to find out ways in which BuildUp’s successful “Commons Approach,”- a digital peacebuilding depolarization project- used during the last US elections, could be adapted to the Kenyan context, which is often characterized by chaotic elections. The latter is a product of negative ethnicity, corruption, and historical injustices, which the country is struggling to address in order to build up an equal and just society through the Building Bridges Initiative (2).
From the 1990’s through the year 2000 and beyond, Kenya has experienced a cycle of political violence. Kenya ushered in a new constitution in 2010 (3), following the controversial 2007 elections (4) that led to the deadliest post-election violence in the country’s history, where more than 1000 people died and several others were displaced. The magnitude of the violence decreased in 2013, thanks to the new constitution that provided some mechanism for electoral dispute resolution, and in 2017,the idea of peace journalism and conflict sensitive reporting was beginning to take root (5). What is fascinating in these transitions is the manner in which social media played a central role in fuelling electoral conflicts and also – peacebuilding. Social media created a safe space for the emergence of the new phenomenon of citizen journalism and cybercitizenship, where the internet has given birth to cyberdemocracy. This is both an exciting and worrying trend, because of the double-edged-sword nature of social media platforms.
Maskani: Adapting the Commons
Our focus at the Center for Media, Democracy, Peace and Security-Rongo University is about ways in which we can make users literate, regarding the exploitation of social media spaces. Our aim fit perfectly with Build Up’s “Commons Methodology”. Due to Covid-19 realities, our Maskani workshops with faculty members and students have moved online and are being conducted using Zoom. Our project has grown, and we are now collaborating with the following universities, Maseno University, Kisii University, Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, Kibabii University, and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology.
These online workshops have introduced students to digital peacebuilding and strategies around online engagement, for example using social media platforms like WhatsApp. They also focus on technicalities and affordances that social media provide in digital peacebuilding. Each university has a Maskani WhatsApp group, administered by two faculty members, where ideas are explored and weekly exercises are given. These exercises help solidify ideas learnt in the training workshop, and a student whip is designated the job of stimulating additional interaction, in addition to the weekly Zoom feedback session. The workshops help in building consensus on topics drawn from the objectives of the project ranging from what constitutes polarization in Kenya, to identifying and interrogating existing positive and negative hashtags and exploring effective strategies for online dialogue– acknowledging Twitter’s central role in political agenda setting in Kenya due to the traffic and reactions posts potentially generate.
Politics took center-stage, forming the basis of polarization, with Covid-19 becoming another pressure point. Even though WhatsApp and Facebook are highly considered avenues for both polarization and peacebuilding, Twitter is considered very critical in spreading hate speech in political conversations and through polarization from the use of hashtags. Some examples include:#KenyaForAll; #Tribelessyouth ; #Kenyas4Kenya; #UhuruToughChoices; #HowRutoBetrayedUhuru; #RutoWantedToKillUhuru; #UhuruFumigatesJubilee; #RutoMustGo; #Ruai and counting.
Some good exercise emerged out of these hashtags:
- When tracing the original or first creator of a hashtag, and the context in which it was first used, you can use First Tweet. This website can provide information about a word, a tweet, a hashtag, or any other part of a tweet. For example with the hashtag #Ruai, it was revealed that the first creator was a Ms Owir, who simply used #Ruai in 2009 to suggest that she was going there. Now in 2020, #Ruai has been used to capture the narrative of politically driven demolitions that seek to remove squatters out of “government reserve lands” in the outcasts of Nairobi. This example demonstrates an important part of our understanding on the use of social media hashtags (6).
- Another exercise is finding, analyzing, and creating positive hashtags that could potentially counter the trending negative hashtags. In this exercise, it was clear that negative hashtags had serious reactions compared to positive ones. An example was given on how the negative polarizing hashtag #HowRutoBetrayedUhuru, could be countered by #UhuruToBetrayKenyans, in order bring about commonality regarding political realities when exploring what works and what does not in online depolarization.
Going forward, the project intends to use data analysis tools that will allow us to see online behaviour from a bigger data perspective, tracking metadata to monitor movement. (Polarization is about movement, behavior that trends away from interaction and more towards isolation with those you believe in or agree with. (7)) But until then, students are trained to assess what is polarizing by observing how much traction (how many likes, shares, tweets, retweets, etc.) are occurring. The project is currently training students from June -July 2020, and thereafter, certificates in digital peacebuilding will be awarded to participants followed by a three months online depolarization intervention. In the latter stage of piloting, they will join our newly launched closed Facebook page for all six universities. The project intends to have a joint face-to-face meeting in Kisumu in October 2020 (Covid-19 allowing) to take stock and discuss the next path, which is envisioned as expansion nationally and possibly regionally.
Check out Ogenga’s second blog post on incentivizing digital peacebuilding and more on the current initiatives in Kenya.
Fredrick Ogenga: Fredrick Ogenga Ph.D, is an Associate Professor, Communication and Media Studies, Founding Director, Center for Media, Democracy, Peace and Security, Rongo University and President of the Peace makers Corps Foundation Kenya. Ogenga is a former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington D.C , Africa Peacebuilding Network Alumni, New York , Visiting Researcher at the Boston University Africa Studies Center, USA, and at the Institute for Policy Research University of Berth UK.
- (1) Luos are one of the dominant ethnic communities in Kenya with historical rivalry with the ruling Kikuyu and Kalenjin community since 1963. The Luo, led by Raila Odinga whose father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was Kenya’s first vice president and the Doyen of opposition politics, have always been the face of the opposition science in Kenya since independence
- (2) Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyata surprised the nation and the world by the famous handshake on the 9th of March 2018 after resolving to work together to solve ethnic antagonism, corruption, electoral conflict, marginalisation and inclusivity. On the 14th of December 2018, the two were awarded a honorary degree for their leadership that led to the peaceful action resolution of political conflict in Kenya by the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology
- (3) Constitution of Kenya 2010 retrieved 07th February 2018 from http://www.icla.up.ac.za/images/constitutions/kenya_constitution.pdf
- (4) Khadiagala, G. 2008. Forty Days and Nights of Peacemaking in Kenya. Journal of African Elections Vol 7 No 2 p4-29; Ajulu,R. Kenya’s 2007 Elections: Derailing Democracy Through Ethno-Regional Violence.Journal of African Elections Vol 7 No 2 p33-51
- (5) See Ogenga, F. 2020. Peace Journalism in East Africa: A Manual for Media Practitioners. New York, London: Routledge
- (6) McCann, J. 2020. Maskani Maseno University WhatsApp Group Daily Interaction
- (7) Ibid