Social media started as an avenue more convenient for social networking. Over time, social media sites have adapted to be tools of empowering businesses, being commercialised to build brands and social influencers. But more recently, social media has broadened its uses, reaching a point where its spaces can be manipulated to raise awareness for social and political changes.
In the past few years, several global political campaigns have been elevated, if not pioneered, by social media. We have seen the global climate change campaign through the #schoolstrike4climate campaign that saw many students around the world leave the classroom to make bold statements about the need for a safe environmental future.
We also saw the vigorous #BlackLivesMatter movement that spilled from the confines of the black American experience to be a slogan for many black equality protests around the world.
More locally, in the previous months, there were great trends aligned with a dissatisfaction with the ruling government. The hashtag #JubileeTumechoka, #DissolvetheGovernment, and #WajingaNyinyi all brought to the surface frustrations of leadership and called for the upright consciousness of the public to demand more and better from the leaders. But often times, these online protests, in Kenya, failed to translate to mass protests on the ground, in the streets.
They could not compare to the #BlackLivesMovement campaigns which took place both online and offline, stimulating conversations about race and also having an impact on other areas such as in publishing where literature about race, and by black people, climbed the sales charts. The Kenyan social media trends and political statements also dimmed in comparison to the Anti-extradition law amendment bill in Hong Kong which saw millions of protestors relentlessly campaign in the streets for a period of months.
Social media protests on Kenyan social media could easily have been narrowed down to petty complaints and many activists might have easily been referred to as “keyboard warriors”. But in the last few weeks, the role of social media in engaging political discussion and being a legitimate form of activism is becoming much more prominent. Just last month, Homeboyz terminated several of its radio hosts after remarks that allegedly propagated dangerous attitudes on violence towards women.
The radio conversation caused an uproar, especially on twitter, with many accounts demanding for change in how the media confronts gender-based violence. Following an apology from radio personality Shaffie Weru, the campaigners recognised than an apology wasn’t enough, and so did some corporate bodies, most notably EABL who withdrew their sponsorship of the radio, an act that corresponded with the subsequent termination of the said radio hosts.
Evidently, the activism online transpired to a level that triggered the engagement of other stakeholders whose influence contribute to even greater change. But that has not been the only evidence of social media trends increasingly leading to change.
Recently, Kenyans have expressed great frustrations over the country’s mountain of debt. This frustration reached a boiling point when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced an approval for a USD 2.34billion loan to Kenya.
The fund, IMF claims, is meant to catalyse the country’s progression in curbing the effects of COVID and underlining efforts to increase transparency. But whatever the purpose of the loan, Kenyans expressed the aching exhaustion at the leadership’s failure to pay off the existing over Ksh.7trillion accumulated in debt and continuing.
Through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, Kenyans in their own posts, or through the hashtags such as #IMFstoploaningkenya, have written directly to IMF demanding they withdraw loans directed at the country. But Kenyans have done more than just tweet or post, over 250,000 signatures are reported to be signed against IMF loans.
Though the effect of these signatures is yet to be concluded, it is a great step showing an increased participation of the public in matters of international economy, dependency, and a democratisation of opinions regarding the financial stability of the country.
In being conscious of the national economy, many Kenyans have also utilised social media to bring to light the issues of tax and healthcare. Recently, USAID donated anti-retroviral medicine apparently worth over Ksh.2billion and were then taxed Ksh.90million by the Kenya Revenue Authority.
Many Kenyans depending on the medicine were left without it as government held on to the medicine. But after outrage on withholding necessary medicine was shared on social media, the ministry of health finally announced that the medicine will be released for the patients whom it serves, and the tax that KRA demanded will be dismissed. This is another win for the recent bouts of social media activism that gradually builds the belief that change can be achieved.
Social media, then, might have started as just as a place for networking, but it is unequivocally so much more than that today. Where activism has previously been a face of fists raised high in the streets, the last couple of months have proven that all spaces, even virtual ones, can be avenues of change, when used well, and resiliently.