Why Twitter banning political ads is not enough for the case of Kenyans on Twitter

Kenyans on Twitter — KOT, and the entanglement of local politics.

One of the most distinctive features of the human language compared to any other animal is the ability to tell fiction. Talking about things that can only be imagined, in some cases, lies. We couldn’t have achieved modern civilization and the creation of different social constructs without the aid of our peculiar linguistic features. It is hard to convince a monkey to give you its banana in exchange for an endless supply of more bananas after-life. They cannot imagine… politics is dependent on our linguistic abilities to convey a message, emotions, and perceptions.

Twitter recently decided to ban political advertisements on its platform. The CEO, Jack Dorsey announced the message:

We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought. Why? A few reasons…

— Jack Patrick Dorsey (@jack), October 30, 2019

The news was graced with mixed reactions, some citing the move as a colossal blunder. Twitter at this moment, released the first iteration of its policies banning political ads. It is hard to draw a line in the sand for what is a political advert and what is almost along the same theme. What criteria will Twitter use? Do they become the moral cops of online political speech?

In addition to political ads, are issue ads, which are communications intended to bring awareness to a certain problem, such as climate change. Twitter suggests that issue ads can be a loophole to their ban, and decided to include this category of advertisement to its ban policy. In response to some of the basic questions about the criteria to decide what is an issue advert, the legal and policy lead at Twitter, Vijaya Gadde, responded:

hi — here’s our current definition:
1/ Ads that refer to an election or a candidate, or
2/ Ads that advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance (such as: climate change, healthcare, immigration, national security, taxes)

- Vijaya Gadde (@vijaya), Oct 31, 2019

Enter the world of Kenyans on Twitter — KOT

Central to the entire ban policy is the fear of undesirable influences in democratic processes (such as general elections). Here in Kenya, Twitter is used/abused in a bit more unconventional way; which I think the company probably doesn’t factor in their decision making. Recent developments in US politics seem to have led to a renewed interest in Twitter’s move to regulate its microblogging platform. As such, they should strive to consider the wider use cases of their platform and the broader implications of their ban policy, to other countries apart from the US.

Social media is now influencing how the traditional mainstream media (TV, radio, and newspaper) reports developing events. Today, whatever trends on Twitter and Facebook, is easily picked up as a headline by the mainstream media. Social media has received scant attention from the media houses to a point that we have TV shows that are purely guided by what has trended in social media, for instance, “the trend” by NTV.

Unfortunately, our local political outfits don’t spend so much money on Twitter campaigns the way the company would have imagined. Locally, we have a powerful force of profiles that have gathered influence on Twitter over some time, and can easily be bribed to make anything trend! An infamous title has been given to these local bloggers who are paid to shape the narratives on Twitter for fellow Kenyans — the keyboard warriors. They are exploited for political messaging, as propaganda megaphones on social media.

The rational argument that “political message reach should be earned, not bought” as expressed by Twitter’s CEO, establishes their moral postulate of the ban policy. Jack Dorsey mocked Facebook for not taking any measures to regulate political ads on their platform (considering the past cases of user data abuse in targeted political ads). However, Twitter’s new policy has failed to consider the dynamic aspects of its platform in places like Kenya and the contextual factors that influence trending topics in the Kenyan Twitter-space.

It sounds counterintuitive for Twitter to impose a policy that is deeply found by a principle that tries to level political message outreach; without any option to buy a medium of influence on their platform, yet this is precisely what is happening here in Kenya! The symbiotic relationship between traditional media and social media amplifies the contradictory effects of the policy. If the mainstream media is inspired somehow by social media, it, therefore, means that whatever the keyboard warriors can make trend on Twitter, gets more viewership when the traditional media picks it up. It renders the new Twitter ban some-how, ineffective to our social dimension of communication.

The media has a big influence on the election’s outcomes. People are shaped by the opinions broadcasted, stories published, and interviews delivered. When a political contest has ten candidates and only two participants are featured by the media, what do you think will happen during an election? Unlike the US, Kenya has several political parties, and the bias is felt during the election period when the media doesn’t level their playgrounds for all the participants. In the recently held by-elections in Kibera, I stumbled upon a Tweet which acknowledges that media plays a role in the election’s processes:

The power of media. They made us think Kibra only has 3 options. 3 bad options. This is how we lock out good candidates #KibraDecides

— Silwal (@M_Silwal),Nov 7, 2019

Contestants in the by-election for Kibera Member of Parliament

For this reason, I feel like the policy will act as a possible driving factor for the existing known politician, to keep on thriving in politics; while locking out new potential candidates, who are genuinely trying to promote their manifestos to the public.

Twitter has provided tools and avenues for its users to help regulate content on the microblogging platform. Such approaches, however, have failed to address the issue of abuse from what is supposed to be trusted sources. For instance, if the keyboard warriors decide to report an innocent Twitter account, it will be suspended without any proper investigations, therefore, acting as a form of censorship. It is especially used to suppress journalism, commentary on Twitter. The issue advertisements ban looks like yet another potential tool to be abused against the freedom of expression in countries like ours.

This article has demonstrated the shortcomings of Twitter’s new policy with effects on a country like Kenya. The policy has a considerable impact on sparking the necessary conversations that play a crucial role in regulating content on social media platforms.

In the last few years, there has been a surge of interest in identifying the effects of social media on democratic processes. Cambridge Analytica harvested 50 million Facebook profiles in its plan to influence national elections through personalized advertisements. A reasonable approach to tackle this issue could be centering the policy around the use of personal data in targeted advertisements rather than banning all political adverts.

For the case of Kenyans on Twitter (and similar users), Twitter should review their algorithm that determines what is geographically trending. A few accounts should not be making anything trend. For a topic to trend, it should progress naturally, and with a good proportion of different Twitter accounts, participating in a trending conversation.

In the past, we have experienced some positive movements and activism through the appropriate use of Twitter - #147notjustanumber #MyDressMyChoice #FreeBobiWine #40foraplate #Ivolunteer #PrayForKenya #someonetellcnn, etc. To keep a strong and authentic impact of Twitter on our society, greater efforts are needed to ensure that it is not abused or used to suppress information that may accentuate various societal issues.

John (Troon) Ombagi — jayombagi@gmail.com

If I was a writer I’d have nice words to put here :) Purple Teamer.

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