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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Digital democracy or algorithmic authoritarianism, choose.

Updated: Mar 6, 2022

A Ukraine related twitter spike and UDA presidential aspirant claims that the August elections could be rigged alerts us there is a fine line between a digital democracy and algorithmic authoritarianism.

Less than 50 tweets with the hashtag #IstandWithPutin created by twenty accounts with less than 500 followers went viral and globally trended this week. In a sharp departure from posting Ambassador Kimani’s influential speech at the UN Security Council the previous week, Kenyans switched to congratulating Russian Prime Minister Putin’s bravery in standing up to the United Nations and condemning Ukrainian racism for blocking Africans from migrating to safety.

On the other side of the world, William Ruto reportedly sounded alarm bells that independent agencies have begun to subvert public will and the August elections may neither be free or fair. Ruto’s lecture is a copy paste version of his arch-rival Raila Odinga pre-2013 and 2017 General Elections speeches to American and Kenyan diaspora audiences. Why do we seem to be caught in permanent loop of electoral mistrust?

The two incidents reveal a deeper challenge to the upcoming elections. Deliberate policy, legislative and institutional neglect has heightened the probability of online disinformation, voter suppression, vote rigging and a disastrous internet shutdown. Despite two decades of elections and referendums internationally, we are paying insufficient attention to elections digital security.

The power of data companies, data brokers, giant social media platforms, political party communications and campaign teams have expanded dramatically in Kenya. Powerful algorithms now enable search engines and social media platforms to anonymously bombard micro-constituencies with adverts based on their online profiles and interests. Without our consent, invasive processing of our posts, photos, likes and attention time has created the advertisers’ dream and the consumers’ nightmare. At Kshs 1000-50,000 per advert, digital information campaigns are considerably cheaper than the Kshs 500,000 per month aspirant billboards now towering above us.

Navigating deep-fake photos and lies is not easy for most of Kenya’s 7 million unique social media users and those with 17 million smartphones. As the Russian Internet Research Agency and other state and non-state troll factories know, our national environment is wide open for interference by both domestic and foreign political propagandists.

Open and independent democracies need vigilant and responsive public institutions. They also require educated citizens to make informed choices how they wish to be governed and by whom. For us to navigate this moment safely, we need the entire eco-system of regulatory bodies, political parties, businesses, and us, the voters, to shift our behavour.

Can political parties and aspirants emulate the Uruguayan political parties who recently adopted an ethical pact against disinformation and declared responsible digital campaigning practises that respect privacy? The Data Protection Commissioner, Registrar for Political Parties and the Electoral Commission must proactively track and report on digital campaign financing trends and ensure that digital campaigning also stops before Election Day.

Citizens can download the “Who Targets Me” browser extension and track how adverts are being used to influence their choices. The Editors Guild and Media Council could firmly enforce media codes of conduct. Social media platforms like Twitter, the Meta siblings and others must protect our personal information, challenge disinformation, and reject “dark money” advertising with little or no transparency. Powerful search engines like google must require political advertisers and their campaigns to disclose their identities, funding sources and restrict campaigns for new advertisers. Only this will protect Kenyans from the divisive dangers of online surge moments.

Should we consider an election-day blackout period for political advertising, enforce Elections Act penalties and civic organisations educating voters be required to publicly declare their political affiliations or non-partisanship in this period?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and our constitution declare that the authority of all governments spring from the rights of citizens to freely express their political opinions and make political choices. Without addressing the challenges facing our developing digital democracy, we will not meet this standard and could jeopardise everything.

This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard 5 March 2022

Articles I found useful as I wrote this piece

On Ukraine and disinformation

On creating new digital elections standards

On Kenya's specific challenges


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