Hate speech biting:Crackdown on hate mongers online intensifies

KENYA: At least two people may soon be charged in court for spreading hate messages. With just three weeks to the first General Election under the new Constitution, perpetrators of inflammatory speech are starting to feel the heat with sites like Mashada.com shutdown in Government efforts to crack the whip on bloggers and social media sites spreading hate messages.

“We have identified two individuals. One of them was spreading hate messages through his mobile phone while the other was using a modem traced to a local media house,” says National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) Assistant Director (complaints, legal and enforcement) Kyalo Mwengi.

Mwengi says NCIC has been working with groups monitoring social media, but within confines of the Constitution that guarantees privacy and freedom of speech.

“We are not out on a witchunt but rather to investigate complaints from the public. You must have done something for us to narrow down on you,” says Mwengi. Among those using expert monitors and modern technology to search for dangerous speech online is iHub, a technology innovation and research centre based in Nairobi. In an initiative dubbed ‘Umati’- a project by iHub Research, World policy Institute and Ushahidi- a collection of inflammatory speech posted online by Kenyans, is being documented in what is seen as the first project of its kind worldwide. Umati was birthed out of the influence social media had on the 2007/8 post-election violence, and started in September 2012 and will run to May this year.

Dangerous speech

While the NCIC refers to these inflammatory messages as ‘hate speech’, initiatives like Umati use terms like  ‘dangerous speech’. The NCIC Act defines hate speech as ‘that which advocates or encourages violent acts against a specific group and creates a climate of hate or prejudice, which may in turn foster the commission of hate crimes’.

It has, however, been argued the ambiguity of the definition renders it to several challenges that may make it difficult to successfully prosecute hate speech. iHub Research Project Manager Angela Crandall says negative sentiments targeting tribe top the list of dangerous messages currently being spewed online, with others targeted at gender, religion, and political inclinations.

“All information we monitor whether on blogs, Facebook, or Twitter is public,” says Ms Crandall in response to questions raised on the legality of such initiatives.

Umati lead Researcher Kagonya Awori says: “Anything put in public space is for public consumption and online is a public platform,” she says. She says there are currently about 30 sites being monitored including those using local dialects. “We are looking at blogs that are up to date and feature Kenyan issues locally and in the Diaspora.

Besides Facebook and Twitter we are looking at online newspapers, and recently introduced the monitoring of You Tube videos posted by media houses,” she says. Besides Kiswahili, English and Sheng, social sites using Kikuyu, Luo, Luhyia and Kalenjin are under the radar.

“We arrived at these tribes based purely on population size figures that put them at the top,” adds Crandall. At Umati, monitors use an online categorisation process that enables them sort the collected statements in order of severity. These are rated as offensive speech, moderately dangerous speech, and extremely dangerous speech. Of the three, moderately dangerous speech continues to be the most rampant. Examples of such messages posted online include: ‘Show me a (tribe) and I will show you a waste of space on this beautiful planet.’ ‘We won’t vote for a woman, shindwa na ushindwe’.

Identifiable commenters

The most frequent call to action on monitored Kenyan blogs, newspapers, Facebook pages and tweets according to a study by Umati, was to discriminate members of another group. The report notes that the highest use of dangerous speech from Kenyans online is by identifiable commenters, with 53 per cent in October and 90 per cent in November.

Mwengi cites the use of pseudo names as a challenge for the commission while identifying perpetrators of hate speech, but is optimistic this will no longer be a problem. Besides relying on information from initiatives like Umati, NCIC is also working in partnership with the Communications Commission of Kenya, Content Service providers and mobile phone operators to fight hate speech.

Guidelines have been developed for the transmission of bulk political text messages. Such messages are required to be transmitted to content service providers who then forward them to mobile network operators within 48 hours. If there is need for clarification on the content, the request will be made to NCIC, which must then respond within 24 hours.


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