As a scholar with close personal ties to Occidental College, Dr. Warigia Bowman was excited to be on campus on Monday, Jan. 25. A professor of African politics at the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service, Dr. Bowman spoke about her recent research regarding hate speech and the use of text messaging in the 2013 Kenyan elections.
In 1963, Kenya declared independence from the UK, but they remained an undemocratic one-party state under the Kenyan African National Union until the end of the Cold War, which served as an impetus for a push towards multi-party elections. It wasn’t until 2002 that the opposition finally united under Mwai Kibaki and the National Rainbow Coalition, winning peaceful elections.
Five years later, however, Kibaki narrowly won reelection, and suspicions of election-rigging were rampant. This turn of events sparked ethnic violence that ominously echoed patterns of the Rwanda Genocide in the 1990s; ultimately, over 1000 people were killed and 300,000 were displaced. The violence was political, bought and paid for by politicians, and was fueled by competition for land.
On the eve of the 2013 elections, then, it became critical to monitor the dissemination of hate speech and propaganda in order to prevent or understand renewed violence. Dr. Bowman, as an official election observer and researcher, examined government and media efforts to control the violence. She also conducted exit polls to collect data on text messages that had been sent on election day. While only 41% of Kenyans have access to internet, over 80% have cell phones, making text messages a primary means of sharing information. In her research, Dr. Bowman found that the vast majority of election-related text messages were positive, with many encouraging voting and some even specifying peaceful voting. A much smaller percentage of the text messages were negative, and most of these used ambiguous language that was up to interpretation. Very few actual violent threats were issued.
Dr. Bowman attributes this peaceful atmosphere in part to government actions, such as the criminalization of hate speech and the establishment of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission that banned certain vernacular keywords that served as codes during the 2007 election. The media was also critical, carrying out a “media blitz of peace” that involved songs, art, and even the military singing songs about cooperation and peace.
The 2013 elections were largely successful and peaceful. Uhuru Kenyatta was elected, and there was no repeat of the 2007 massacre. Still, says Dr. Bowman, current efforts to regulate hate speech must be much more specific in order to be effective in curtailing violence. The current constitution is so vague as to what constitutes hate speech that it serves no practical purpose. More stringent and detailed definitions are necessary. Still, the 2013 elections were an important step in creating a stable democracy.