25th November 2021
Launched by ISD at the UN General Assembly in 2015, the Strong Cities Network (SCN) is the first global network of local leaders dedicated to combating hate, polarisation and extremism in all its forms.
As part of the SCN’s programme of ongoing research, ISD analysts have mapped and analysed the online extremist landscape in Bangladesh, Kenya, the Maldives, North Macedonia and Central Asia. The purpose of this research is to inform comprehensive, evidence-based responses to these online harms.
Focusing on Kenya, this is the second in the Digital Dispatches ‘Online Extremism Index’ series, which provides a snapshot of the extremist milieu online across these different geographical contexts. In particular, it looks at polarising content and hate speech online in Kenya ahead of the country’s 2022 general elections.
Identity politics has a long history in Kenya, dating back to British colonial rule when policing of the country’s tribes and a redistribution of territory along ethnic lines spurred grievances between ethnic groups. Colonial administration also favoured certain ethnic groups over others and by the time Kenya gained its independence in the 1960s, inter-ethnic polarisation was already deeply embedded across the country and in its politics. This inter-ethnic division became even more pronounced when Kenya transitioned from one-party to multi-party politics in 1992, resulting in political coalitions that were formed along ethnic lines.
Since then, elections have been plagued by widespread inter-ethnic violence: in the 1990s, ethnic clashes in election periods killed over 3,000, while the presidential elections of 2007-2008 resulted in nearly 1,300 dead, 650,000 displaced and 117,000 properties destroyed. Elections in 2013 and 2017 tell a similar tale, with more than 400 lives taken in the former, and the latter being marred with police brutality and killings.
The exponential increase in social media use across Kenya in the past decade means inter-ethnic polarisation now also manifests online. During election periods, political rhetoric that incites and exploits inter-ethnic grievances is amplified in public discourse about political candidates, their voters and how they perform at the polls. Hate speech has also been identified as one of the main catalysts for the election violence in 2007-2008 that killed over 1,000 and, in the context of the 2017 elections, research by ISD uncovered vast amounts of tribalism online.
With Kenya’s next general elections coming up in 2022, national and local governments and civil society organisations (CSOs) have begun efforts to prevent a repetition of past election violence. To do so, they must operate with an informed and evidence-based understanding of how debate and discussion surrounding elections manifest. In this context, ISD researchers mapped and analysed hateful content online in Kenya between 15 May 2019 and 15 May 2020.
➜ Over the course of a year (15 May 2019 – 15 May 2020), ISD researchers identified over 85,000 posts that were intolerant towards specific ethnic, religious and political identities.
50% of these posts were found on public Facebook groups that had a collective subscriber rate of over two million. This makes clear the potential for mass public exposure to hateful content to result in a mainstreaming of hate, in turn open to exploitation by extremist groups seeking to mobilise offline violence, particularly in the run up to elections.
➜ In addition to the 85,000+ posts that were identified as religiously, ethnically or politically intolerant, ISD researchers uncovered more than 15,000 posts containing sexist language.
In some cases, this overlapped with ethnic stereotyping, where women of specific ethnic backgrounds were objectified and dehumanised as sexual commodities. This dual risk of hyper-sexualisation and ethnic stereotyping disproportionately targeted Kikuyu women. When considered in the wider context and history of gender-based violence in Kenya, the scale of this content is especially concerning.
➜ When discussing political issues online, hate based on ethnic or tribal identity is over 300 times more prevalent than that based on religion, the majority targeting Kikuyu and Luo groups.
ISD’s research found that, as with past elections, discourse surrounding the 2022 elections is already rife with scapegoating and stereotyping along ethnic lines – politicians, for example, are frequently subject to hate based on ethnicity, while different ethnic groups are stigmatised based on the activities of affiliated politicians. This is particularly prevalent in discourse surrounding the government’s Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), which seeks to address societal issues including inter-ethnic intolerance but is largely regarded as a disingenuous “box-ticking” exercise. With the next elections drawing closer, it is likely that inter-ethnic hostility will increase and that it may escalate to violence if it remains unaddressed.
➜ Harmful narratives pitting religious identities against one another were prevalent and are being exacerbated by COVID-19.
Almost 20,000 posts included intolerant rhetoric related to religion, primarily pitting Islam against Christianity. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya coincided with a gradual increase in inter-religious intolerance online, reflecting ISD research in other contexts that reveals how the pandemic has been exploited by extremist actors to amplify “us versus them” narratives (for example, that the pandemic is a punishment from God against “non-believers” and sin). Further claims suggest that the absence of an Islamic state or Caliphate is to blame for the pandemic and that, in turn, implementation of extremist understandings of Islamic governance is the only solution to the pandemic and other contemporary crises. Also present were claims that the virus is a lesson for Muslim women that don’t wear the headscarf or Niqab, again adding a gendered element to polarising narratives online.
This research has helped shed light on the scale and nature of hateful content online in Kenya, highlighting that, just as with past elections, political debate surrounding the 2022 elections is rife with scapegoating and stereotyping along ethnic lines. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is being exploited to further dehumanise “others”, including specific religious communities. Finally, inter-ethnic hate and religious intolerance are compounded by gendered narratives that demean and dehumanise women by objectifying and hyper-sexualising them.
This research comes at a critical time. As Kenya prepares for its 2022 general elections, civil society and local governments fear a repetition of past election violence. The country’s heated political environment, and the demonstrated potential for hate speech to escalate to large-scale violence, are also exacerbated by Kenya’s ongoing domestic challenge with international terrorist groups like al-Shabaab and local branches of non-violent extremist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Collectively, this makes for an environment that is especially conducive to a violent escalation in hate, polarisation and extremism on- and offline.
The findings and recommendations outlined in the full report can form a critical component of a response towards emerging online threats which may help mitigate against a repetition of electoral violence in 2022. However, further analysis must be conducted to understand the wider ecosystem of online hate in Kenya beyond Facebook and other mainstream social media platforms. As the general elections draw closer, efforts to understand the threat and respond proportionately must be urgently scaled to prevent the severe and fatal violence witnessed in all of Kenya’s elections since the 1990s.