During Kenya’s post-election crisis in 2007, which saw thousands dead and many more displaced, inflammatory messages sent via SMS and emails exacerbated the chaos dividing the country along ethnic lines. Against that backdrop, with the subsequent advent of social media, analysts feared this week’s election could spur even worse violence.
But Kenya, whose citizens rank among the top social media users in the continent, has taken measures since the 2007 election to avoid a return to the bloodshed, which threatened its image as a stable democracy in a region ravaged by conflicts. A new constitution is now in place that bars presidential candidates from engaging in tribal rhetoric. The local media aired messages of peace and interfaith prayers. Nearly 100,000 police officers were deployed across the country to ensure an orderly polling. Officials warned the media, both local and international, to tread carefully and not misinform the public in a way that could inflame sectarian tensions.
The measures seem to be working — instead of using social media to exacerbate violence, as predicted before the election, social media has empowered ordinary Kenyans to speak out against misleading reportage.
There’s been plenty of reporting to criticize. Kenya’s peaceful election on March 4 seemed anticlimactic for western reporters, especially those who parachuted into Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, with doomsday predictions of impending violence. Almost all international dispatches from Nairobi have made reference to violence in their headlines, including words like machete, hate, tribal leaders, killings, catastrophe, and armed militias. In a span of few days, three major news organizations drew angry responses from Kenyans for their sloppy coverage.
On March 1, the Financial Times ran a story with a misleading quote that suggested Raila Odinga, Kenya’s prime minister and one of the frontrunners in the presidential election, won’t honor the outcome of Monday’s vote if he loses. A correction, published online two days later, said the error happened during copy editing.
The same week, Kenyans lashed out at CNN for a short video clip that featured “local Kikuyu” militias in Kenya’s Rift Valley training to fight back should there be violence. Kenyans were infuriated by what they saw as an isolated report that made no reference to peace initiatives that were happening across the country, including a rally for peace in Nairobi’s Uhuru park. The Atlanta-based network is not new to Kenyan disapproval; about a year ago, a news report on a terrorist blast in Nairobi was accompanied by a banner that read, in big letters, “Violence in Kenya,” suggesting the country was in disarray. That time too, Kenyans turned to twitter to demand an apology using the hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN. This week’s report revived the hashtag as Kenyans angrily denounced the report as sensationalist.
On March 5, a day after the election, when only about 50 percent of votes were tallied, in an aggregated post, The Atlantic Wire borderline-declared Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta a winner with a screaming headline: “Kenya Just Elected a President Charged with ‘Crimes Against Humanity.” It was later modified to include the word probably. After electronic vote counting system failed on Tuesday, election officials are now tallying the votes manually. Official results are expected on March 8.
Backlash against lazy coverage of Africa is nothing new. There are a plethora of articles instructing foreign writers how not to cover Africa. What’s new is social media’s role in empowering Africans to own the narrative and protest against what they saw as stereotypical coverage of their stories. Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) used the platform to vent their frustrations with what seemed like a cheerleading competition for violent news. Others poked fun at foreign media flops. For example, a tweet on Election Day by Calestous Juma, a Kenyan who teaches at Harvard, was retweeted more than 1,300 times:
However, not all foreign reporting has been bad. Reuters Africa, which has a bureau in Nairobi, has been providing nuanced and accurate coverage of the election. The BBC has provided informative analysis of the candidates and issues that were at stake in this crucial election. But not so much for the cash-strapped US media, where many outlets simply cross-posted or rewrote wire stories under different headlines, each one catchier than the next.
But as more Africans start to use social media, it is playing an increasingly important role in allowing them to partake in conversations about their future, and to protest unfair representations.
To be sure, African countries face several challenges to democratization. Ethnic tensions continue to manifest in different forms. Corruption, nepotism, and electoral rigging still undermine Africa’s aspirations toward democratic governance. But Africa also faces other challenges, like heightened rural-to-urban migration, population growth, growing youth unemployment, increased demand for better education, and other opportunities. It is the convergence of these and many other factors that inform electoral tensions. That’s the kind of context we, as journalists, should be sensitive to. A little bit of humility and awareness of the intricate realities on the ground will help us avoid what Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie calls, “the danger of single story.”