Does Social Media Allow People To Practice Politics Differently In Kenya?

There’s been an interesting debate raised on what social media is doing to political discussion in Kenya.

Njeri Atieno Thorne kicked off this debate by drawing on Habermas to criticize the lack of rationality and poorly-informed opinions found on social media in Kenya.

Though a bit academic, it’s worth making another point. Habermas’ notion of a democratic public sphere is actually pretty undemocratic. He’d only let in folks capable of “rational speech,” which leaves out most of us, lest we conform to his decidedly European, upper-crust standard.

It’s good to remember that Habermas comes from a tradition of pretty elitist academics, including Adorno and Horkheimer, who thought of ordinary citizens as sheep. Another issue with the public sphere is that Habermas can’t quite shake the baggage of democracy as conflict, which plays into our darker tendencies.

Njeri is assuming a position perfectly consistent with Habermas, and using it with the intent of stifling dissent (or at least a form of dissent): don’t criticize unless you are well informed. Leaving aside the fact that it’s difficult to be informed in an environment lacking transparency (e.g. oil exploration contracts) and where misinformation is a fundamental part of politics, the conceptual problems alone with the “ public sphere” are evident here.

But there is a different question which would be posed by his critics, such as Laclau and Mouffe. And that would be: does social media allow people to do politics differently in Kenya? Particularly, you might ask, “Does SM media provide a space for people to practice politics that isn’t all smash-mouth partisan politics, the kind that is degrading and corrosive (and incidentally common in many places, though has its own history in Kenya). Can SM be used to move us from antagonism, where we try to destroy our enemy, to agnonism, where we are willing to compromise? This isn’t about rationality, but about having the right attitude. And the answer is decidedly yes and no and probably not by itself.

Yes.

The hate speech and vitriol is well documented thanks to people like Nanjira at iHub. Kenyan social media even has its own “big men,” capable of mobilizing masses. Kenyan social media at times suffers the worst of Kenya’s political pathologies, no doubt.

No.

But, that said, there are places in Kenyan cyberspace where people are just being feminists (brainstorm.org) or just discussing issues related to Somalia and the Somali diaspora (sahanjournal.com). Nothing to do with ODM or Jubliee here — a very different kind of politics that wasn’t as easy to practice before social media. Just ideas and stories, often good ones, some of which might even be both “irrational” (like a short story) and constructive.

Probably not by itself.

The problem, from my perspective, is that these spaces don’t always help people of different viewpoints to understand one another; they can be balkanizing, atomizing (though this is debatable). The profound point Nanjira makes about the need for overlapping stories relates to this. I think the jury is still out on whether social media builds you as the complex entity that you are, or fragments you. According to Roger Silverstone, the Internet, and social media, is “hospitality without a host.” All are welcome, but it’s no one’s home. Mainstream media, by contrast, is the place where we have to confront our potential adversary; it is still the main door through which the uninvited ever make it into our living room. And for better or for worse, it is still often the space where we have to make sense of conflicting and overlapping narratives.

Social media shouldn’t aspire to be a “public sphere,” but it’s not the polis either (not least of all given the classes that it excludes in the first place). For my money, the question is how it affects other spaces. What influence does it have on the practice of mainstream media, on activism, on parliamentary debate, on local service deliverers?

The answers are still up for discussion, but those are better questions.

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