The rise of clicktivism in Kenya: The need to balance digital activism with national interests

  • 23 Jun 2024
  • 3 Mins Read
  • 〜 by Brian Otieno

The debate around the Finance Bill 2024 ignited a flurry of conversations. Perhaps the most striking one was the firestorm on social media, demonstrating the burgeoning power of digital activism or clicktivism.  While Kenyans have historically expressed dissent, the internet has become a potent platform for amplifying voices and mobilising action. Digital activism has greatly come to the fore as a potent tool for agitating for change; however, some practices have bordered on illegalities. For instance, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has had reservations about the sharing of personal contacts on social media and issued a stern warning to that effect.

To better understand this terrain, we need to appreciate the potential and pitfalls of digital activism, its effectiveness, and the delicate dance between free speech and national unity while navigating this new wave of civic engagement.

The rise of the clicktivist: A double-edged sword

Digital activism empowers individuals to circumvent traditional media gatekeepers and express themselves directly. Hashtags like #BoycottSugarTaxKE and online petitions demonstrate the ability to rally public opinion and pressure policymakers. The 2016 #KOTPetition, which successfully challenged the imposition of Value Added Tax (VAT) on fuel, exemplifies this power. Social media fosters a sense of community, enabling geographically dispersed citizens to unite for a common cause.

However, the anonymity and ease of online engagement can lead to the proliferation of misinformation and negativity. The echo chamber effect, where users are exposed primarily to opinions that confirm their existing beliefs, can exacerbate societal divisions.  Furthermore, the virality of online outrage can overshadow nuanced discussions and drown out dissenting voices.

The balancing act: Free speech, privacy and national cohesion

Kenya, like many nations, grapples with balancing free speech with national security and social cohesion. The 2018 Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, while aiming to curb online harassment and hate speech, has been criticised for stifling legitimate dissent.  The challenge lies in crafting regulations that safeguard national unity without infringing on the fundamental right to free expression. Data privacy and data protection concerns are also emerging and such need to be considered as well, even as citizens exercise their freedom of expression.

Perhaps inspiration can be drawn from Germany’s NetzDG (Network Enforcement Act), which compels social media platforms to remove hate speech within 24 hours.  However, context is crucial.  As has been the evidence so far, during the Finance Bill protests, Kenya’s vibrant online discourse, often laced with humour and satire, needs a nuanced approach that distinguishes between dissent and genuine threats.

To create this balance, a multi-pronged approach is necessary. 

  1. First, fostering digital literacy is paramount. Equipping citizens with the ability to discern fact from fiction and engage in constructive online discourse is crucial. Schools and civil society organisations can play a vital role in these efforts.
  2. Second, promoting responsible journalism online is essential. Fact-checking initiatives and collaborations between traditional and digital media outlets can help stem the tide of misinformation. Platforms themselves have a responsibility to develop robust content moderation policies that are transparent and accountable.
  3. Third, fostering open dialogue between policymakers and the public is key. Utilising social media for Q&A sessions, polls, and online forums can create a more inclusive policy-making process.  Examples include initiatives like #AskGovKE, where Kenyans could pose questions directly to government officials.
  4. Fourth, promoting empathy and understanding across the digital divide is crucial. Social media campaigns that highlight the human stories behind online activism can foster a sense of shared purpose and national identity.
  5. Finally, harnessing the power of digital activism for positive social change requires a collective effort. The government, civil society, the private sector, and individual citizens all have a role to play.

Lessons from the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring, a series of revolutions that swept across the Middle East and North Africa in 2010, serves as a potent example of the mobilising power of digital activism. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter played a crucial role in organising protests and disseminating information. However, the uprisings also underscored the need for balancing national interests beyond simply expressing discontent.

In Kenya’s context, digital activism can be a powerful tool for holding leaders accountable, promoting transparency, and advocating for social justice. However, for it to be truly transformative, online movements must translate their virtual outrage into concrete action. This could involve voter education campaigns, community engagement initiatives, or partnerships with established NGOs.

 Conclusion: The road ahead

Kenya has a proud history of robust civic engagement. The fight for independence and the multi-party democracy movement are testaments to the power of collective action. Digital activism is simply the latest iteration of this spirit, leveraging the tools of the 21st century.

Protecting digital rights is not just about safeguarding free speech but about ensuring a level playing field for participation in the public sphere. An open and inclusive online environment allows diverse voices to be heard, fostering innovation and progress.

More importantly, the rise of digital activism presents both challenges and opportunities for Kenya. By harnessing its potential for positive change while safeguarding the right to free speech and national cohesion, Kenya can navigate this new era of civic engagement.  This requires a commitment to digital literacy, responsible online journalism, open dialogue, and a shared vision for a more equitable.