We are legion: Why Kenya’s next war will be on Twitter

TWITTERTwitter is a social media tool that wields impressive power.

As at March this year, it had over 500 million users, 200 million of whom were active monthly, sending over 400 million tweets daily. This makes the platform the fourth largest social networking site globally, behind Facebook, Google+ and YouTube, in that order.

What makes Twitter stand out, however, is the great publishing power it gives its users. If your profile is public, anyone can access your information from anywhere around the world. It is also possible to follow popular areas of discussion, known as “trending topics”, for many countries, and you can narrow down your interests to what is trending in specific cities around the world.

Relationships on Twitter do not have to be reciprocal, making it easy to follow whatever content or people one is interested in without being followed back. On Facebook, information is generally restricted to one’s friends, making it difficult to tell what others are doing if they are not on your friends list or if their updates are not public. Google+ is more open than Facebook, though it is a newcomer when compared to Twitter and Facebook and has often been dismissed as a virtual ghost town.

YouTube, on the other hand, is a video sharing site which only recently joined the social networking craze. It is user-content driven, just like Twitter, only that the content is in video format and takes more data to consume than Twitter, which is text-based.

The Arab Spring

In January 2012, Portland Communications released a study titled How Africa Tweets that provided insight into the continent’s use of the medium. In terms of volume, Kenya was second to South Africa, followed by Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco. The top 20 countries were found to represent 70 per cent of Africa’s total population, 88 per cent of its internet users and 85 per cent of its total GDP.

The role of Twitter and other social media in the popular revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa has been indisputable. Many activists and protestors who played key roles in the Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, Lebanese and Syrian protests have said that what they achieved would not have been possible without social networks.

One Egyptian activist tweeted: “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.”

Through social networks like Twitter, Arab Spring activists were not only able to overthrow dictators, but also make citizens aware that there were people, both within and outside their countries, willing to listen to their stories. The psychological fear barrier was broken and people were able to connect and share information. It opened a window of insight to the outside world, informing their view of these countries and the region at large.

It also made the people in this region aware that they were not alone, that other parts of the world were also experiencing injustices and hardships at the hands of their governments.

On the Kenyan side of the fence, however, things are slightly different. Kenyans have, indeed, used Twitter for positive causes, from organising the #OccupyParliament protests against Members of Parliament, to helping people find transport when matatus were on strike with the hashtag #carpoolKE.

Stress release

However, most times Twitter is used in Kenya for entertainment and stress release. As such, a lot of venting occurs on the site. One of the regular occurrences is Twitter beefs — or “tweefs” as they are popularly known — where two or more people who may not agree on something take it to the Twitter streets and sling mud at each other, most times pulling in the rest of #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter).

Tweefs happen between individuals all the time, caused by things like nude pictures, breakups and sub-tweets. Merely having an opinion and expressing it could land one on the receiving end of a tweef.

The causes of the tweefs vary. In the case of #KOT vs Zimbabwe in 2011, it is not known what exactly started the fight, but Kenyans were put firmly in their place by two Zimbabweans. At one point, when the heat became too much to handle, Kenyans turned on themselves, mocking one another. The only rejoinder #KOT had was the overused one about the value of their dollar.

Next came #KOT vs Botswana in March 2013. This was started when Botswana’s Foreign Affairs Minister Phandu Skelemani said the following about Uhuru Kenyatta’s case at the ICC: “If he refuses to go, then we have a problem. That means that they do not know the rule of law. You can’t establish a court and refuse to go when it calls you. If he refuses, he won’t set foot here.” KOT took this hard and started the hashtag #SomeoneTellBotswana to defend their president and country. The uproar forced Skelemani to retract his statement and maintain that Kenya and Botswana would continue having a good relationship.

Later that month, Kenyans fought Nigerians over the mistreatment of Harambee Stars when they went there for a World Cup qualifier match. It started when pictures of the team training in a primary school with poor facilities were posted on Twitter. The hashtag #SomeoneTellNigeria was quickly conjured to express displeasure with how “our national football team was being treated”, especially since the Nigerian team receives good treatment in Kenya.

Nigerians rose up to the occasion with #SomeoneTellKenya, and it became a full-scale Twitter war. The premise of the original argument was quickly forgotten and both sides took to attacking elements of each country’s culture, with a few misinformed jibes about poverty and hunger. This became a global trending topic and even made international news.

‘Cousin’ Uhuru

Barely a month later, Kenyans again took to the Twitter streets to fight Ugandans over a newspaper article that suggested that the new Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta was Ugandan and even carried a congratulatory message from the king of Bunyoro, Solomon Gafabusa Iguru, to his “cousin” Uhuru after he was confirmed president. The newspaper carried pictures of relatives who looked like Kenyatta and even ran a follow-up story on how Jomo Kenyatta may have been Omukama Kabarega’s son.

Kenyans quickly took to their keyboards to “tell” Uganda that their president could not possibly be a son of their nation, the hashtag of course, being #SomeoneTellUganda.

They responded with the hashtag #SomeoneTellKenya, but not on the same scale as the Nigerians. As usual, the original premise was lost when the tweets began attacking elements of Uganda’s life and culture.

Historians opine that the First World War was caused by four factors; nationalism (the belief that your country is better than others), imperialism (the desire to conquer colonies), militarism (the attempt to build up strong armies, and alliances (formed to help each other out if a war occurred).

Kenya’s tweefs fall in the first category: wars caused by nationalism. They are an expression of patriotism, however misguided. It may be argued that an online war is much more preferable than one on the ground: for one, the arsenal includes mobile phones, computers and tablets as opposed to guns, grenades and drones. There would be no UN Security Council meetings over Twitter wars and the United States would not have to swoop in like an eagle when things get ugly to save the day and “teach us democracy”. It enables people to get violent without getting physical.

Grovel at their feet

Kenyans On Twitter are very proud of their ability to pick a fight with others and make them grovel at their feet. One cannot deny that they are a force to reckon with online, and that they have done many remarkable things. However, it is apparent that most of those who fall under this umbrella are cyber-bullies who constantly take isolated incidents, blow them out of proportion and use them to slight entire countries. They do not take time to think of the consequences of their words, or to find out all the facts.

Instead, they just take to Twitter and spew their thoughts. They are bolstered by their numbers and galvanised by the pseudo-anonymity of their handles. They are legion, encouraged by a sense of safety behind their screens.

The difficult questions, however, elude most. Do they realise that what they share online is permanent? It is said that the Internet never forgets. The content you put there, whether you are joking or not, stays there. Even when you delete it, it is cached by search engines and recorded by ingenious people who take screenshots. It is reblogged and retweeted. These tweets may hurt people later, in ways they least expect.

Secondly, is it really clever to trade insults with a sister African country? There may be a perceived injustice committed, but the genius behind attacking countries who share more in common with you than any others is hard to understand. The IQ of a mob, after all, is the IQ of its most stupid member.

African unity

What happened to African unity? Who will be for us if we are against ourselves? Could these tweefs lead to foreign affairs nightmares? Definitely. It is only a matter of time before nations have diplomatic interventions for situations that began on Twitter. How will your words affect your nation’s future?

We are living in the information age, therefore the role of social media in communication, our daily lives and global dynamics can only increase. This means that we may make comments on Twitter that are seemingly innocuous, but whose consequences we are not able to deal with. Perhaps the next time you move to compose a new tweet, you should pause for though




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