One of the greatest strengths of social media is that it is completely uncensored. As demonstrated by the Arab Spring, this feature makes social media invaluable for organizing protests and spreading information that oppressive governments may not approve of. The complete freedom of speech over social media certainly promotes democracy. However, when it comes to hate speech, social media can be a double edged sword. Hate speech over social media has a wide scope and can range from high schoolers bullying each other on Facebook to tribes calling for mass violence against one another.
The latter is a huge issue for Kenya, especially during election seasons. Kenya’s 2007 elections resulted tribal violence that slaughtered over 1,200 people. With tension high for the upcoming elections, Kenyan government and civil society hope to prevent another mass outbreak of violence. One prevention strategy is to monitor hate speech over social media. This article on rueter.com describes the work of Kagonya Awori who runs Umati, a web-based project monitoring dangerous speech. The government has already banned the media from reprinting hate speech against other tribes in full but have no way of preventing viral hate speech over social media.
Previously most political and tribal hate speech in was spread though radio but now most occurrences are over Facebook. Over Facebook there is no anonymity, since the poster’s name and location are displayed. This allows groups like Umati to monitor specific individuals who are making threatening posts and predict the locations of possible violent outbreaks. The government is taking Awori’s work very seriously and head of criminal investigations in Nairobi is threatening to prosecute anyone who spurs violence over social media.
Kenya clearly has different freedom of speech laws than the US so it does seem like monitoring hate speech is within the governments legal bounds. Preventing violence should of course be a top government priority, however, this article does bring to light the murky line between civilian protection and repressive censorship. It’s hard to say if governments should be able to prosecute their people for what they post other social media, even if it seems justified. Given that much of social media’s strength to incite change comes from a complete lack of censorship, fear of arrest could greatly weaken its force.