Nanjala Nyabola: "Social media is not a substitute for traditional media" | #mediadev | DW | 08.07.2019
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Nanjala Nyabola: "Social media is not a substitute for traditional media"

In an interview with #mediadev, the Nairobi-based political analyst, humanitarian advocate and writer shares her insights on media, digitalization, and politics in Kenya.

A woman pours ballots on a table

During the 2017 presidential elections in Kenya, an independent official opens a ballot box at a polling station in Nairobi

Nanjala Nyabola's work focuses on forced migration, conflict and post conflict situations, as well as Eastern African politics in general. In 2018, she authored "Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Kenya“, in which she assesses how the digital age has impacted Kenyan politics. Nanjala currently works as an independent researcher on politics and society in Kenya. She tweets under @Nanjala1.

#mediadev: Nanjala Nyabola, between the Kenyan presidential elections in 2007 and 2017, the internet took off in the country. With regard to the two elections, what changed?

Nanjala Nyabola: I would characterize the 2007-2017 decade as a case of two steps forward and two steps back. The two steps forward was an incredible uptake in the use of the internet in Kenya. Part of this was enabled by a good policy environment; part of it was enabled by people being creative and people being super connected to the developments that were happening in other parts of the world. Kenya is a very outward looking country. Whether you are talking about mobile money, blogging or people building computer based systems for their businesses, we saw openness to embracing technology.

What happened then?

And the two steps back, well, after the 2013 election, we saw a significant reversal in terms of digital progress. And more recently, the government introduced taxes on internet services and mobile money. Most people are using mobile money to transfer 20 or 30 dollars. So when you introduce a 20 percent tax on that, you are basically hurting the poorest of the poor. The tax on the internet has already led to reduced internet use in Kenya. The tax on mobile money is probably making things worse.

Technology empowered people -- did the government take back that power?

I'm always reluctant to say technology empowers people. I think people use technology. I think people use whatever is available to build systems and to tell stories and to redefine their societies. I think what technology does is create an opportunity. And it is an opportunity for both good and bad.

Before the advent of the internet, telling stories and exchanging views on society was somewhat the realm of traditional media. Where do they come in?

A Kenyan man holding a cellphone

"What technology does is create an opportunity"

In Kenya, there is a lot of tension between the traditional media and social media. Like in any other market, traditional media has alleged that social media has eaten into their profits. I don't think that the story is that simple. I think people will pay for good journalism. I think people are hungry for good journalism. You can't do investigative journalism in 280 characters. You need space.

How far do Kenyan media cater to this demand?

Kenya's traditional media are between a rock and a hard place. Some of the problems that they're facing they've created for themselves. They have conceded a lot of space to the government; they don't like to criticize the government directly; there's a lot of self-censorship. The biggest advertiser in Kenyan media is the government of Kenya. So whenever the media run a story that is too critical of the government, the government withdraws its advertising.

What other challenges do you observe?

In 2016, we had a couple of incidents whereby three high profile journalists were fired. One of them, Denis Galava, said on record that the call to fire him didn't come from the editors. It came from the office of the president. So this is the context in which journalism has to happen, in addition to the threats and the brown envelope journalism.

What we have here is a situation whereby the traditional media is making social media a scapegoat for problems that are much, much deeper and much more urgent than that. The fact is that social media can never be a substitute for traditional media. Facebook cannot run a newsroom. So, now we know that we need newsrooms, are we prepared to actually go back and invest and build the kind of newsrooms that we need? That’s the challenge for Kenyan news media.

What role did digital corporations like Facebook play during the elections?

in a tv studio, a woman looks at the picture of a news anchor on a camara display

"Traditional media are between a rock and a hard place"

This is not necessarily a new thing if you look at it historically, but digital spaces are creating new opportunities for communication: For people to have niche conversations in very small communities, for audiences to have a much more direct say in how content is created and shaped.

I think the big challenge that I see coming down the pipeline is what we call dark social – with apps like WhatsApp, Signal, or Telegram. With them, not only are you able to create the niche audiences the way we have seen on Facebook and Twitter, you can create them in a way that other people are not able to see what is happening within those niche audiences.

Do you see any sort of responsibility on the side of the companies running these platforms?

I have to be honest, intellectually I haven’t really settled on this issue. The pragmatic side of my brain says: It's good for people to communicate. At the same time, I recognize that there is a qualitative difference between sending a text message, for example, and sending a WhatsApp message to 300 people inciting violence.  My instinct is to say there is a responsibility — even if I don't know what the shape of that responsibility looks like.

How could we address that?

The tech companies are American companies and they are responsive to American imperatives. Some countries have been able to demand exceptions to the rule. So for example, in Germany, content moderation has to be done in German, because of national laws. At the same time, Ethiopia is the second largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, with a population of about 110 million people. Facebook got its first Amharic content moderator last year. And that person is in London. So there's also a question of power.

So far what we've seen are regulations that are being made to protect American people, not to protect the Ethiopian people — even though the threat of violence and the threat of intimidation or instigation is so much higher than in the US.

I think shareholders need to be more informed. They need to understand what's being done in their name. It's good that the UN did that report on Facebook in Myanmar [denouncing the company’s role in enabling incitement to violence against the Rohingya minority]. I hope to see more thinking around how the internet is being used in conflict and post-conflict situations. Do shareholders notice? That's the question. And then comes the follow-up question: Do they care?

Interview: Alexander Matschke

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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