* Kenyans are among Africa's biggest users of Twitter
* Fears that social media could drive repeat of 2007
* Authorities warn against incitement of tribal animosity
* New law prevents media from re-printing hate speech
By Drazen Jorgic
NAIROBI, Feb 5 Every day, Kagonya Awori and her
tech-savvy team trawl through Facebook and Twitter for warning
signs that Kenya's elections in March may unleash the same
ethnic violence that took the country to the brink of civil war
five years ago.
Sifting through blogs and social media sites, the group of
six search for hate speech and inflammatory postings - or any
early indications that inter-tribal tensions are escalating.
Awori and her colleagues have reason to be worried.
The last presidential vote in late 2007 when incumbent
President Mwai Kibaki was declared the re-elected victor was
disputed by opponents and erupted into bloodletting.
More than 1,200 people were slaughtered, many butchered by
machete, burnt alive or shot with bows and arrows as the
country's biggest tribes turned on one another.
"The amount of dangerous speech is going up but, this time,
the people who are saying these things are not hiding at all,"
said Awori. She heads Umati, a web-based project monitoring
dangerous speech for research firm iHub Research, which conducts
Africa-focused tech research out of Nairobi.
"There are outright calls to kill, forcefully evict and
steal as well as discriminate against members of particular
communities," she said.
Most of the hate speech Awori's group has come across so far
has been on Facebook, with users frequently revealing their
names, and often their location.
Kenya, East Africa's biggest economy, has ranked second for
Twitter use in Africa in recent years, out-tweeting
oil-producing powerhouse Nigeria and Egypt, where social media
helped galvanise supporters of the Arab Spring revolution.
Kenyan authorities have passed legislation banning media
outlets from re-printing hate speech, to curb the spread. But
thus far they have been largely powerless to stop ordinary
Kenyans from voicing tribal animosities on social media.
Kenyan law prohibits media from re-printing tribal hate
speech in full.
Examples of online vitriol include calls to "chinja chinja",
or "butcher butcher" in Swahili, as well as to beat, loot, riot,
kill, and drive out other tribes.
A repeat in March of the inter-tribal violence that bloodied
the 2007 elections cannot be ruled out.
Alliances forged by Kenya's main presidential contenders for
the 2013 vote are lining up for a rerun of a largely
ethnic-based contest for political power.
The two main opposing camps are headed by Prime Minister
Raila Odinga, who is backed by Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka,
and Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta whose running mate is
William Ruto, a former cabinet minister.
The head-on rivalry between Kenyatta, son of Kenya's founder
president and from the predominant Kikuyu tribe, and Odinga, a
Luo, raises the spectre again of ethnic confrontation.
Contributing to the tensions, both Kenyatta and Ruto face
trial after the March vote at the International Criminal Court
(ICC) in the Hague for their alleged role in fomenting the
election violence five years ago.
EYE ON THREATS
Kenyan authorities say journalists should choose their words
with care so as not to inflame tensions.
"We will set you on fire before you set us on fire,"
government spokesman Muthui Kariuki warned international
journalists at a breakfast meeting on Wednesday.
"We believe to a greater extent that (the violence of)
2007-08 was a result of a lot of information that journalists
wrote and passed on to our people," he said.
In the Kenyan blogosphere online users blast opposing tribe
members as "snakes", "maggots" and "vultures", among other
"These [hate speech posts] are actually telling people to
re-enact what happened in 2007, so it's very vicious," Mary
Ombara, secretary of Kenya's media monitoring body, said.
Ombara receives daily reports on online hate speech. The
government has hired bloggers to monitor sites for inflammatory
content. The government two weeks ago also enlisted the help of
Awori's Umati team and Kenya's National Human Rights Commission.
Civil society NGOs are also helping.
A national agency formed to reconcile tribes after the last
election violence said it was working with police to identify
threats and hate speech to avoid a repeat of the 2007 mayhem.
Particular attention is being paid to political rallies and
social media, Alice Nderitu, an official at National Cohesion
and Integration Commission, told Reuters.
"We are monitoring and will take people to court for using
abusive language on social media," said Nicholas Kamwende, head
of the police's criminal investigations department in Nairobi.
FEAR THE TWEET
Radio has traditionally been the leading medium for the
dissemination of hate speech in Kenya - a trend reflected by the
inclusion of a local radio presenter among the ICC indictees in
the aftermath of the 2007/2008 post-election violence.
Joshua Arap Sang faces charges of crimes against humanity
alongside Kenyatta and Ruto. They all say they are innocent.
During the 2007-08 clashes, mobile phone text messages were
a powerful tool for organising vigilante groups and mobs,
according to the National Human Rights Commission.
To curb this, Kenya has ordered that all lines that cannot
be traced to a known user be de-registered in a bid to clamp
down on people sending out provocative texts.
However, the arrival of affordable smart phones on the
Kenyan market has increased internet use on cell phones and
caused an explosion of social media.
Some fear Facebook and Twitter will take the place of the
SMS text this time around.
Awori's team are part of a network called Ushahidi, which is
Swahili for "testimony" or "witness," that uses SMS, e-mail and
social media to map out where violence is breaking out.
Created in 2008 as way for Kenyans to report instances of
post-election violence, it has since been used to map acts of
war in Gaza, earthquake devastation in Haiti and currently U.S.
activist use it to chart human rights abuses in Syria.
During Kenya's 2010 constitutional referendum, Ushahidi also
showed it could play a key role in curbing aggression. When it
received an SMS message of rumours that machete-wielding men had
rushed to a polling station in western Kenya, it verified the
threat with its sources on the ground and alerted the police.
Fifteen minutes later, dozens of police officers swooped on
the polling station to halt any possible trouble.
"It looked like magic for the guy who sent the SMS,"
recalled Daudi Were, Ushahidi's project manager.