When SMS Messages Incite Violence in Kenya

When discussing the role of technology in Kenya's recent post election troubles, a big part of the story here and elsewhere has been the use of mobile phones both as a one-to-many communication tool (Twitter, ect...) and as a way to exchange resources in times of need (Mama Mike's and mPesa).

On January 3rd, a few days after the election, Juliana from Afromusing first reported that the government sent its own message threatening those who use SMS to mobilize public action. At first I was concerned that Kenya was going the way of Ethiopia, who completely shut down the SMS system during the election process in June 2005.

However, its important to point out the context in which these messages were sent.
NPR (and many others) ran a story which shows not an imperiled government stiflying democratic organizing, but a government that was startled by the violent, tribal-based SMS messages being sent in the days following the election. NPR reports that the text from the government on January 3rd was a warning, not against 'public unrest' (which some had reported), but against 'violence': "The government advises that the sending of hate messages that can result in violence is an offense that can result in prosecution."

The NPR story goes on to report that the government message, sent to millions in Kenya via carriers like Safaricom, was in response to eerily violent messages being forwarded en masse. Messages like this:

"Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu's have stolen our children's future...we must deal with them in a way they understand...violence."

"No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo's you know...we will give you numbers to text this information."

Human rights activists added that part of the problem was that otherwise upright citizens contributed to this hate speech because of the ease and excitement of forwarding these messages.

The story also interviews Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph who said that the government indeed did consider shutting down the SMS system, but mobile phone providers convinced them to pass up this idea, and instead allow the providers to send out messages of peace and calm, which Safaricom did to all nine million of its customers.

We rightly spend a lot of time talking excitedly about how digital/networked technology can be useful for democracy and human rights advocates in Africa (see our wonderful recent conversation in Istanbul). However, like the Mabira forest protests in Uganda, this story is another sobering anecdote that reminds us that these technologies can also be used for violent public action. As is often the take-away from our investigations, the message seems to be, technology is neutral.

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  • It's always a double-edged sword, this technology. The same things that make it good for one case make it bad for another. Not just technology, though.

    By Blogger The 27th Comrade, at 11:49 PM  

  • File this one under irresponsible governance and negligent public policy. If the government was hands off, they should have stepped in and terminated the entire grid. There free speech and there's irresponsibly inciting and promoting deadly violence. All parties involved are responsible for the thousands that died.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:24 PM  

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