Online Activity Has Potential To Escalate Election Violence
Umati, a project of iHub Research and Ushahidi, has produced a pioneering collection of inflammatory speech, posted online by Kenyans in the past three months, as our presidential elections draw near.
We embarked on this effort because of the influence that new media and social media apparently had on the 2007/2008 Post Election Violence in Kenya. Unfortunately, inflammatory speech is still rife in the Kenyan online world, and we have found more dangerous hate speech than we expected – in seven separate Kenyan languages. As a result, Umati is now working with online thought leaders such as bloggers to quickly counter the effects of what our partner Professor Susan Benesch has identified as “dangerous speech.”
Professor Benesch, who studies the role of inflammatory speech in catalyzing collective violence around the world, has defined dangerous speech as hate speech with certain characteristics that help to catalyze violence by making it seem acceptable and even necessary. Umati and Professor Benesch, of the World Policy Institute, and American University in Washington, D.C., believe that societies at risk of such violence can diminish the risk – while also protecting freedom of speech – by identifying and countering “dangerous speech.”
Our flagship project has developed the world’s first systematic collection – as far as we are aware – of hate speech and dangerous speech in one country’s online space. Our database shows Kenyans are attacking groups of all kinds: tribal, religious, gender, political, and sexual orientation. Anecdotal evidence from the 2007/2008 election cycle suggested that online media played a major role in the post election violence period. However, with no systematic monitoring of the online space at that time, we could not therefore track the trends. This time around, we wanted to ensure that we captured the trending topics, phrases, and sentiments online well in advance of the elections.
Now alarmed by the amount, virulence, and variety of Kenyans’ posts attacking other groups of Kenyans online since October 2012, we are going beyond what was to have been a research project only.
Umati is working with Ushahidi to host free and open events and trainings on which speech is dangerous and why (based on Professor Benesch’s research), and on how to diminish its effects. For example, when one blogger posted false and inflammatory rumors last year that a church in Mombasa had been burned, another online “good citizen” countered the dangerousness of that speech by Tweeting a photograph showing that the church was unharmed with the text “stop spreading lies.” We are encouraging other online thought leaders to follow such examples by publicly committing neither to use nor tolerate dangerous speech.