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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Wednesday Links 2.13.08

Busboys and Poets (great coffee shop/bar/performance space/activist bookstore in D.C.) via Shana Lee's photostream

In Washington D.C., where I'm headed today, I'm looking forward to a great week of jazz.

In Cape Town, TED Africa 2008, the most important conference in Africa, opens its registration.

In Portland, Kevin Caroll writes about Kicking It, a new documentary bought by ESPN about football and homelessness.

In Washington D.C., Peter Levine makes an interesting point about American states that have a civic movement tradition and their willingness to engage in the Obama narrative of 'Yes WE Can."

In New Haven, Chris Blattman has a useful redux of recent congressional testimony about the role of the U.S. in post-election Kenya. This post shows concretely what the U.S. could have done differently when chaos broke loose in Kenya. I wonder what AFRICOM would have done.

In Istanbul, blogger and online activist Mustafa Domanic offers one opinion on Post Global on the repeal of the headscarf ban in Istanbul.


The Role of Blogs in the Kenyan Elections

In Istanbul we had a presentation from some of my favorite Kenyan digital activists. Their presentation was fun for me, especially as a follow-up to the piece I wrote on the role of the internet in the immediate aftermath of the Kenyan election. This is a story I will be following for quite some time.

cross-posted from the I&D blog. Thanks to Victoria for this roundup.

The next presentation highlighted the role of blogs and twitter in last December’s Kenyan presidential elections, especially with respect to monitoring the violence and strife in the aftermath. Several blogs, such as KenyanPundit.com and Ushahidi.com, are nearly exclusively covering the elections protests. Many of the blogging sites are organized into the Kenyan blog webring kenyaunlimited.com. One blog site, Mashada.com, became ethnically divisive enough to be unmoderatable and the forums were closed. In its place, the organizers set up ihavenotribe.com, where Kenyans and others are successfully submitting their thoughts.

Another site that was discussed was MamaMikes.com, which allows people to log on and deposit money to have it delivered to people in Kenya in the form of various different commodities, such as gasoline, beer, mobile phone credit (note that through the m-pesa system money can be transferred from one mobile phone to another).

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Istanbul Roundup

In my short trip to Istanbul last week, I stayed in Taksim, a neighborhood known for its soulful public protests as well as its raucous nightlife. On the first night, walking back to our hotel on Istiklal Cadessi, the main shopping street, we saw a small group of neo-nationalists protesting the recent constitutional provision allowing headscarfs in universities. These Kamalists generally cling to Ataturk's secular legacy, and think that any turn away from secularism is not a gain for civil liberties, but the first step on a slippery slope towards Islamism. Calmly lined up across from this group of protesters were several dozen police in riot gear.

Most of my time in Istanbul was spent talking to amazing people about whether the internet has a positive effect on democracy, a negative effect, or no effect at all. The question wasn't posed in an academic sense, but in true Berkman fashion, by talking to technologists and activists who are experimenting with ways to use the internet to organize, promote ideas and help improve lives. Check out a full summary of the event on the I&D blog.


to Istanbul

I'm on my way to the airport to fly to Istanbul for a Berkman Center conference which is soon to be blogged. I've been challenged to a half marathon on the Bosphorus on Saturday, which promises to be as legendary as my other world class runs. Onward!


Wednesday Links 2.5.07

View from the Daphne Hotel-Istanbul, via Argenberg's photostream

In Washington, Michael Dirda writes about Vermeer's Hat, which describes how at the dawn of globalization, "the lure of China's wealth haunted the seventeenth-century world."

In London, Tom Barnett explains the continental aspirations of U.S. Africa Command.

In New Haven, Chris Blattman lists an excellent African reading list.

In Cambridge, eon: dean of cyberspace gives us something to ponder.

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