Book Review: Nanjala Nyabola, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya

April 3, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Most of the stuff written about online activism is primarily based in the North (eg New Power, which I reviewed recently). So I was v excited to find a book written by a Kenyan (Nanjala Nyabola is a Kenyan writer, humanitarian advocate and political analyst, currently based in Nairobi) about how New Power applies to her country’s politics. The book is fascinating. As an added bonus, Digital Democracy is also a highly readable introduction to Kenyan society and politics.

You could hardly pick a better test case than Kenya – a digital hub, home to Mpesa, Ushahidi and other celebrated digital innovations. High literacy levels and 88% mobile phone penetration in 2017, combined with low levels of trust in a traditional media that long ago sold its soul to the politicians, and the room for manoeuvre that goes with a ‘partly free Democracy’ seem to provide the perfect incubator for ‘digital democracy’.

But this book is not one of those tech hype exercises in gee whizzery. It is about how digitization is both shaped by, and influences ‘analogue politics’. Based on numerous detailed case studies (the chapter on women’s rights activism and social media is particularly good), she arrives at what seems like the emerging consensus that New Power needs to be combined with the Old variety: ‘A hashtag is no more a movement than a pencil was prior to the digital age; an online movement without an offline component can often stop at just noise.’

The politics is less uplifting. The book begins and ends with political failure: a horrendous outbreak of election-linked violence in 2007 ‘fuelled a thirst for new politics’, including an effort to sanitize electoral politics through computerization. Techno-optimists ‘thought that technology could bridge the trust gap.’ But they ‘underestimated the tenacity with which Kenyan politicians would continually try to manipulate systems to win elections’. Fast forward ten years and the Supreme Court cancelled the August 2017 elections because of blatant interference in the electronic voting system.

Interestingly, a lot of ‘new media tactics’ are actually not that new at all – they bear a close resemblance to Kenyan traditions. Fake news is just a digital version of the false rumours long spread by politicians during election campaigns; crowd funding is just an online version of the Harambee tradition of community self-help events to help people with big financial moments like school fees or funeral costs. Tweeting a leader is just an updated version of a tradition of a Kiswahili phrase for a direct appeal to those in power, ‘Naomba serekali’ – ‘I request the government’.

Nyabola unpacks the political impact of new tech, and finds that it is deeply ambivalent, nowhere more so than on the issue of ethnic tension, which has been manipulated by politicians to devastating effect in recent year. Social media helps people build trust and cooperation across ethnic distinctions, but also acts as a channel for hate speech, especially through ‘Dark Social apps’ like WhatsApp, which by being away from public scrutiny, seem perfectly designed for the purpose: ‘social media has paradoxically both reinforced and undermined ethnic identities in Kenya.’ 12 million Kenyans use WhatsApp, compared to 7.1 million on Facebook, 4 million on Instagram and only 1 million on Twitter.

The use of all these new platforms for online politics is dominated by the middle class: Tweets are overwhelmingly in English. But even so, it is a much broader and younger constituency than a conventional politics dominated by old men. Social media have allowed dissidents and outliers to find and support each other (on women’s rights, or sexuality) and so overcome their previous isolation. It seems that social media provide the channel for the rising middle class of Africa and other developing countries to find a space in a politics previously dominated by a tiny and elderly elite. And in that intra-middle class conversation, public shaming via social media can exercise genuine influence on leaders.

The picture painted by Nyabola is one of a country where the impact of new tech is in the balance. Just as elsewhere, the bad guys have discovered its potential (Cambridge Analytica was heavily involved in the 2017 election); we still don’t know whether digital populism and hate speech will triumph over social media’s ability to bridge and connect.

Her overall conclusion is broadly optimistic, however:

‘Underneath all of this tension and upheaval is agency. Kenyans are taking on technology built for the West to tell their own story and chart their own political destiny, for better or worse…. The underlying theme in the conversation is not conflict, it is agency.’