Kenya 2013: Experiments in the Technologies of an Election Year

//Annenberg PhD student Eleanor Marchant analyzes the successes and failures of technology use in Kenya’s recent highly- anticipated election.

On March 5th, Kenyans went to the polls to elect their next president in one of the most hotly anticipated elections of the year, with the memory of the electoral violence of 2007 and 2008 hanging overhead. One long tense week later, the International Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced that Deputy PM Uhuru Kenyatta had won at the polls with 50.07% of the vote, just barely preventing the need for a second round run off against his primary rival outgoing Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

But tension has not yet dissipated completely as Odinga announced on Friday that he would file a petition with the Supreme Courts arguing that the voting lists in key constituencies were manipulated to deprive him of votes. The Supreme Court now has two weeks to decide whether they will accept his petition. If they do, fresh elections will have to be held within two months. Odinga’s complaints are largely related to the failure of more than one element of the IEBC’s new electronic voting system, which was adopted to combat the enormous problem of “ghost voters” and falsification of voter registration in 2007.

In fact, the enthusiastic adoption of technology, with widely varying degrees of success, defined much of the election. Kenyans have long been early adopters of both new trends and new technologies. The now famous Ushahidi, “witness” in Kiswahili, was started in Kenya to use crowdsourced SMS reports to track incidents of post-election violence in 2007 and 2008, at a time when most Kenyans had mobile phones but Internet penetration rates throughout the continent were extremely low and Twitter was only in its early stages in the United States. Even with such low Internet penetration rates, Kenya had one of the most active blogging communities on the continent in 2007, with bloggers accepting comments from their readers via the more accessible SMS.

So it’s no surprise that this zeal for technological innovation and adoption permeated this year’s election – from the unsuccessful implementation of biometric voting at polling stations all the way to the use of Twitter and in-bus dynamic text displays of SMS messages to promote peace and national unity.

Technology and the Presidential Debates

In advance of the election on February 11th, Kenya held its first ever presidential debate, a polished production where the eight aspirants stood behind shiny podiums facing off in front of a small 200 person audience. But the event reached far beyond, both in Kenya and abroad, through live broadcast on all of Kenya’s main radio and television stations (over 40 in total) as well as online at television station website’s, YouTube channels, and on a purpose built website dedicated to the debate. The live nature of the broadcast was remarkable, not only given the history of banned live television broadcasts during the post-election violence in 2007, but also because it served to create Kenya’s first truly national media event, allowing all Kenyans whether in Nairobi or in the diaspora in London to bear witness to the same event at the same time.

Yet, Kenyans absent from the prestigious Brookhouse International School where the event was held were not limited to simple spectatorship. They were encouraged to submit their own questions for the candidates via SMS, email, Twitter and through the debate’s Facebook page. Thousands of questions poured in through each of these channels, with Facebook and Twitter also enabling individuals to read and build off of others’ questions. The questions were then compiled by the debate organizers and asked by the moderators, though exactly how particular questions made it to the actual debate is somewhat unclear. Nonetheless, both Twitter and Facebook  played a particularly active part in the discussion during the debate. As Twitter has easily been taken over by debate-related discussion during US presidential debates, many of the hashtags affiliated with the Kenyan debate, like #Debate254 and #Kenyanchoice, trended globally on Twitter.

Technology and International Media Engagement

In fact, Kenyans’ proclivity for Twitter has largely been underreported and overshadowed globally by discussion of the importance of Twitter in the Arab world, particularly for its apparent role in mobilizing demonstrators in Egypt and elsewhere. But according to a 2012 report published by the Kenyan-based Portland Communications, nearly 2.5 million Kenyans are now on Twitter, more than double the 1.2 million Egyptians who reportedly use the platform, and second only in the entire African continent to South Africa’s 5 million users.

Whether overlooked internationally or not, Kenyans were indeed extremely vocal and frequently creative on social media throughout the election. A particularly poignant example was when Kenyans on Twitter took issue with a CNN reported indicating that Kenyans were once again preparing for violence ahead of the election reminiscent of 2007. In fact, much of the international media coverage leading up to the election had indeed been focused on such “ethnic tension” and the likelihood of violence. Kenyans took issue with this characterization, not because there was no such tension, but because of the lack of coverage of the peace promoting initiatives that had been created to combat such tension that many saw as an integral part of the reality on the ground. CNN became their target with the creation of the widely popular hashtag #someonetellCNN intended to reclaim the narrative about Kenya. #someonetellCNN not only trended on Twitter before the election but has continued to be used into the post-election period to highlight the perceived naiveté of much of the international coverage.

Technology and the Vote

Nonetheless, as Odinga’s appeal to the Supreme Court attests, the virulent adoption of new technologies during the election period was not entirely without its problems.

In the 2007 election, one of the biggest issues that many believe aided the path to violence was the problem with the voter rolls and the falsification of voter identities and stuffing ballots, amounting to hundreds of thousands of ghost voters. A new biometric voting registration system, a thumb scanner similar to those used at immigration in airports, was supported by President Kibaki’s cabinet as well as by Odinga’s office and implemented by the IEBC in order to give more credibility to the outcome, whatever it may be. However, logistical problems abounded on the day of the vote as many of the thumb scanners failed, forcing poll workers to take records manually and significantly slowing down the process, opening a window for accusations of falsified voter registrations.

A new electronic transmission system was similarly adopted to speed up and clean up the vote counting process with the expected capability to electronically transmit results from particular polling stations to the tallying center in Nairobi. But by the end of March 5th, the day after the election, the tallying center had received only 40% of the votes cast after the VPN used to relay the results crashed under the weight of the 33,000 polling stations. By the end of the following day the IEBC announced it would abandon the system and that the remainder of the votes would be transmitted and counted by hand.

Technology and Election Monitoring

Election officials were not the only ones who vigorously adopted new technologies to try to solve previous problems, though they may have been the least successful. In fact, election monitors creatively used different technologies not only to monitor polling, but also to monitor hate speech on both electronic spaces as well as more traditional ones, well aware of both the role of hate speech in 2007 and Kenyans’ proclivity for online engagement.

The Elections Observation Group (ELOG), a consortium of civil society groups and other stakeholders formed in 2010 as the country’s first permanent domestic election observers, deployed election monitors to a random sample of polling stations around the country to observe the process and to conduct “parallel vote tabulation.” Their website includes an array of videos explaining their process to voters and data visualizations of their findings, including an Ushahidi-inspired map of the results of the parallel vote tabulation.

Ushahidi did not disappoint. A fancier version of its 2007 crisis-mapping online platform was created under the title of Uchaguzi, meaning “choice” in Kiswahili. On this new platform, citizens could report on security and tension as in 2007, but also now items directly related to the vote, including announcements of results, problems with staffing and polling station administration and logistics, as well as, comfortingly, any “positive events.” While in 2007 reports were primarily submitted through SMS, this year reports could also be submitted through virtually any electronic means imaginable, including Twitter, email, and even a specially-designed Uchaguzi Android and iPhone app.

Given the role that hate speech is believed to have played in inciting violence in 2007 – radio executive Josua Arap Sang is one of four people currently indicted by the ICC for the violence – monitoring of hate speech in the media, particularly on the radio had been planned well in advance. Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission, for example, developed guidelines for media houses on hate speech and engaged directly with them to encourage more “peaceful reporting,” deploying monitors to watch and listen to the news for inciting language.

In tandem with such efforts, another Ushahidi endeavor emerged: Umati, “crowd” in Kiswahili, is a project designed using a methodology developed by Dr Susan Benesch of American University to define and monitor “dangerous speech online.” When Umati finds incidents of what is considered to be “extremely dangerous speech,” it is passed along to the authorities and added to the Uchaguzi map.

Umati and other similar organizations also mobilized in a more engaged way to disseminate messages of peace in online and other creative platforms both before and after the election. An organization called Youth Agenda encouraged voters to select candidates based on issues instead of along tribal lines by disseminated SMS messages leading up to the vote, and PeaceTXT in collaboration with its field partner Sisi Ni Amani (“We Are Peace”) monitored SMS rumors of hate and engaged to disseminate messages correcting them and promoting peace. Flashcast Kenya, probably the most innovative of the three, used its “location-aware dynamically refreshing text displays” in buses and mobilized them to display texts for peace that riders could submit via SMS. These texts can also be seen on their Facebook page or aggregated on the FlashCast Peace Feed website and Twitter feed.

The environment is still on edge as Kenyans wait for the result of Odinga’s appeal to the Supreme Court, making the downside of the overzealous adoption of technology clear.

The results of many of the other instances of technological adoption are perhaps less clear-cut, but electronic and particularly mobile platforms, clearly have a role to play in setting the tone of public debate and opinion and in giving Kenyans access to real-time news and information not previously available. With more than 25% of Kenya’s population on the internet and 75% on a mobile phone, Kenya’s digital presence and the presence of the digital in Kenya will both play a role in Kenyan politics for a long time to come.

//Eleanor Marchant, Annenberg PhD student


Featured photo credit: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Jorge Lascar

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