Kenya: Ministers refuse to shut down Facebook despite allegations of hate speech

Kenyan ministers say they won't suspend Facebook despite a high level of hate speech and political disinformation on social media days before the country’s elections.


Image : tashatuvango / Adobe stock

A threat to shut down Facebook in Kenya if it did not comply with rules on hate speech before next week’s elections has been overturned.

On 29 July, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), which acts as the country’s ethnic cohesion watchdog, issued an ultimatum calling for Facebook to be suspended if it did not delete harmful content within seven days.

“Facebook is in violation of the laws of our country. They have allowed themselves to be a vector of hate speech and incitement, misinformation and disinformation,” said NCIC commissioner Danvas Makori following the publication of a report by the activist group Global Witness and the British law firm Foxglove Legal.

“We have written to Facebook and requested that they comply with the regulatory requirements we put across. If Facebook fails to do that, we will recommend that Facebook services be suspended in Kenya. Facebook has seven days to reply to us, failure to which we take the action of suspension immediately,” he said.

However, ministers were quick to respond, saying that there were no plans to shut down the social media platform.

Interior cabinet secretary Fred Matiangi and ICT cabinet secretary Joe Mucheru both dismissed the ultimatum.  

“Press freedom is one we cherish, whether it is (traditional) media or social media,” Mucheru told the Reuters news agency. “[The NCIC] don’t have the power to shut anybody down. They don’t licence anybody.”

Mucheru also praised the recent efforts made by Facebook to delete inflammatory content from the platform.

The US company said it had deleted 37,000 hateful posts in the six months to April 30.

“During that same period, we also took action on more than 42,000 pieces of content that violated our Violence and Incitement policies,” said Mercy Ndegwa, the director of public policy East and Horn of Africa at Meta, Facebook’s parent company.

Earlier this year, NCIC reported that Facebook had the highest level of content for hate speech on all social media platforms in Kenya.

“In the last week of March, we had Facebook having 80 percent of all flagged cases while on Twitter there were 20 percent. This trend has been the same for the whole month of March,” said NCIC chairperson Samuel Kobia.

The evidence of hate speech comes against the background of violence accompanying previous elections in Kenya. After a disputed result in the 2007 presidential election, as many as 1,300 lost their lives.

“Given Kenya’s recent history of electoral violence and the ‘polarised, ethnically driven and personalist politics‘ of the country, it remains vulnerable to unrest,” notes the report by Global Witness and Foxglove legal. 

Kenya’s longstanding battle against hate speech

At the origin of the NCIC’s decision to ban Facebook from Kenya is the report by Global Witness and Foxglove Legal, which found that Facebook’s artificial intelligence (AI) fails to detect hate speech ads in the country’s two official languages: Swahili and English.

To demonstrate this, Global Witness Kenya deliberately submitted 20 ads containing speech that was “dehumanising, comparing specific tribal groups to animals and calling for rape, slaughter and beheading”.

“Much to our surprise and concern, all hate speech examples in both languages were approved, with one exception: our English language hate speech ads were initially rejected for failing to comply with Facebook’s Grammar and Profanity policy,” says the report.

After a few minor corrections, the NGO successfully managed to publish all of its hateful comments, showing the gaps in Facebook’s AI modes of operation.

Facebook’s presence has grown rapidly in Kenya. In July 2022, there were nearly 14m Facebook users, which accounted for 24.4% of the country’s entire population, compared to 8m users in 2019. 

This is the second Kenya-related controversy to hit Meta in recent months.

Daniel Motaung, a South African whistle-blower, is in the process of suing Sama, a company based in Nairobi and employed by Facebook to moderate content in East Africa, for blocking his attempts to form a union and protest against working conditions.

Motaung claims that in his work as a content moderator, he was forced to watch traumatising videos such as beheading, without any kind of psychological support.

Terrorists take advantage of “ineffective moderation” on Facebook

The threat of terrorism posed by a resurgent al-Shabaab in East Africa poses a real risk of an increase in inflammatory content on East African social media.

A recent study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found out that al-Shabab and Islamic State make wide use of Facebook to plan attacks on the Kenyan authorities and also spread extremist content, and that the platform suffers clear moderation gaps.

“Ultimately, al-Shabaab and Islamic State supporters are capitalizing on ineffective moderation in East African languages to build out stronger and more resilient networks to polarize audiences and pollute the information landscape with extremist disinformation,” say the researchers.

TikTok poses new challenges

Besides Facebook, one social media which has seen a rise in Kenyan subscribers in the past months is TikTok, the short-form video hosting service owned by Chinese company ByteDance.

A report by the Mozilla Foundation revealed that, similarly to Facebook, political disinformation has spread on TikTok in the run-up to the August general election.

The American NGO, reviewed more than 130 videos from 33 accounts that had been viewed more than 4m times, finding ethnic-based hate speech as well as manipulated and false content that violated TikTok policies.

Disinformation on TikTok is a growing threat to Kenya’s political stability as it impacts a much younger generation than Facebook.

“It worries me because [the youth] don’t have the levels of political maturity or a clear value base that may allow them to sift through such information,” said Irungu Houghton, the executive director at Amnesty International Kenya. 

Additional reporting by Charles Dietz

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