NAIROBI (Reuters) - 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.
U.S. President Barack Obama pressed for free and fair elections in Kenya, urging any disputes be resolved in the courts and not violently on the streets.
“This is a moment for the people of Kenya to come together, instead of tearing apart,” Obama said in a video statement.
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.
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 names.
“These 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.
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 organizing 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 rumors 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.
Additional reporting and writing by James Macharia and Richard Lough; Editing by Pascal Fletcher/Janet McBride