Point, shoot, post: The tumultuous union called social media activism. Can social media agitation replace the spectacle of people massing on the streets?


On the morning of June 9, a crowd stood outside where the shadows of the Hilton Hotel and Corner House kiss on Kimathi Street, Nairobi. Their eyes were fixed on a man who had chained himself onto the Dedan Kimathi statue, the freedom fighter after whom the street is named.
The protester identified himself at Dedan Kimathi Waceke, carried a Kenyan flag and wore a hat bearing its colours, and shouted that he would not free himself from his prison unless he was given audience with his grandmother, Mukami Kimathi. He claimed to be the third grandson of Dedan Kimathi, yet despite such an impressive pedigree he was languishing in poverty.
As the drama unfolded, someone in the crowd whipped out a smartphone, took a picture, and posted it on Facebook. It went viral as those who were not there discussed the merits of Waceke’s demands.
And, with that simple action of “point, shoot and post”, the symbiotic relationship between social media and activism was once again put to test.
Six months earlier, on December 29, 2013, three journalists working for the Al Jazeera television network had been arrested on accusation of spreading false information and aiding a terrorist group in Egypt.
However, Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstay had protested that Baher Mohamed, Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy had been placed behind bars simply for doing their jobs, sparking off a worldwide online campaign dubbed #FreeAJStaff that saw more than 40,000 people demand the “immediate release” of the journalists.
On the same month that the young man chained himself on a Nairobi statue, and despite #FreeAJStaff having gathered about 80 million impressions on Twitter, Mohamed, Greste and Fahmy were sent to jail for between seven and 10 years. The world erupted in protest, but Cairo upturned its nose to the digital dissent and went about its business of serving its version of justice.
Two months earlier, on April 15, the Boko Haram extremist group had driven into a girl’s boarding school in Chibok, northern Nigeria and kidnapped over 200 girls. A hashtag campaign — #BringBackOurGirls — started by a little-known NGO worker named Jibrin Ibrahim, quickly took root and spread to the world and resulted in protests in the major capitals of the world.
Bowing to the pressure, President Goodluck Jonathan broke his silence on the matter a month after protests began, while US president Barack Obama announced plans to assist Nigeria with counter-terrorism measures.
So, a man chains himself in Nairobi seeking audience with his grandmother over “historical injustices” and people spend a few hours blogging it before they move on to other business. In Cairo, journalists working for an international broadcaster are jailed despite protests from the highest offices on the planet.
And in Nigeria over 270 girls are still being held by terrorists months after they were abducted from their boarding school despite a social media campaign that went viral for days.
The question then begs: does this hashtag activism really work? Is it all talk and no action? After the celebrities, presidents and social media pundits have had their fill, they seem to quickly move on to support the next crisis, tweeting and Facebooking their objections to all the world’s wrongs but doing little to cause change on the ground.
“The reality is that social media will never replace people in the streets,” says photographer and activist Boniface Mwangi. “People keep talking about the Arab Spring, but that wasn’t a Twitter revolution! Tahrir Square wasn’t the Internet, but a physical ground, so let’s not lie to ourselves that one day social media will replace street activism.
“Let’s look at what Dedan Kimathi’s grandson Waceke did that June morning on Kimathi Street; if he had tweeted about poverty nobody would have listened to him, but him chaining himself to that statue was a strong statement.”
Boniface, who has had numerous brushes with the law over his social activism, says it is quite easy for people to mistake a strong social media following with real numbers.
“Look, for instance, at how people voted for presidential aspirants Martha Karua and Peter Kenneth. They were very popular online but not as popular offline. The number of followers on Twitter, clearly, is not an indication of the clout you have on the streets.”
Boniface, however credits social media with bringing at least 20 per cent of people who had never met or spoken to him to the protest against MPs’ salaries, proving that it is a great mobilisation tool.
“Social media can be a very powerful voice for the people, but you have to go beyond trolls, insults, paid tweets, handles run by the government and tabloids that pick up tweets and put them out of context,” he says.
For Edwin Kiama, a social media activist, however, a revolution starts by changing mindsets, and one of the ways of doing this is by engaging Kenyans on social media and helping to change the narrative.
“We let a lot of things happen to us and nobody wants to take responsibility,” he says.
Blogging at Wanjiku Revolution and running related accounts on Facebook and Twitter has enabled him to reach a large number of young Kenyans and thus effect change through engagement and discussion.
He gives the example of a tender notice that the government ran in the local dailies a month ago. The first item on the list was a tender to airlift government speeches at a cost of Sh500,000.
“Someone took a picture of the advert and sent it to me, so I went and took the paper, verified, took a picture, highlighted it, shared it on my Twitter and tagged a few people, including Boniface Mwangi, and then it went viral,” he says.
Though the furore resulted in a formal statement being issued by the government, Kiama believes that it is something that has been going on for years and the change may be superficial.
His views are supported by Anne Njogu, an activist and co-founder of COVAW (Coalition on Violence Against Women), who believes that social media’s gains are irreversible.
“Human beings have a need for interaction,” she begins. “That is why social media is an explosive new way of doing things because it connects people at a level of interest, so you can be in a community of 100,000 who are passionate about one thing, who are able to say: ‘Guys, what can we do about this thing?’ Through one Facebook post, through one tweet, you can have real conversations happening. I think that is very powerful.”
For her, some of the recent successes of social activism include the buzz against the sale of the Grand Regency Hotel, the #ungarevolution and the more recent #justiceforliz campaign.
The last is especially important for Anne because it took international dimensions and attracted the attention of a global audience. It started when six men from Busia were arrested for attacking and raping a 16-year-old girl, but the police officers handling the case decided to punish them by having them cut grass outside at police station before releasing them.
But, did it really work?
“To date the attorney general has not resigned,” laments Ann. “The Director of Public Prosecution has not resigned, and neither has the Inspector General of police. It is sad, but it is good that we were able to bring attention around an issue like that.”
So far only one of the attackers has been arrested, and even though the protesters expected something more, they view this as a win nonetheless because it happened in a county where rape cases are rampant but rarely prosecuted.
“When the petition was started I didn’t know it would go as far as it did,” said social media activist Nebila Abdulemelik, who spearheaded the international campaign, in an Avaaz.org You Tube interview. “It just kind of took a life of its own.”
This “taking a life of its own”, also known as “trending” or “going viral”, is a phenomenon most hope for in social activism because it not only gives the issue a wider audience, but also moves it from a regional platform to a national or international one, thus putting more pressure on those responsible to right the injustice.
The Egyptian revolution in 2011 was viewed as a significant example of the power of social media as a tool for activism. Under such hashtags as #jan25 and Facebook pages such as We Are All Khalid Said — in honour of Khalid Said, who was beaten to death while protesting — protesters gained a voice, international attention as well as galvanised the masses who would demonstrate at Tahrir Square.
For the many Kenyans doubting the possibility of a hashtag campaign going to such extremes, activist Ann Njogu says that it is only a matter of time. “Social media, when properly used, is powerful beyond measure. It’s just that we have not had an issue that is going to stick… it’s just a question of when, and what, will be that sticking issue.”
According to a recent report by Human IPO, Kenya has a smartphone penetration of 67 per cent — 40 per cent higher than the African continent average of between 18 per cent and 20 per cent. The popularity of smartphones in Kenya is attributed to a growing middle class, and it is this group that could literally have a thumb on change via social networks.
“The middle class will soon understand the need to play safe or rise up to action,” says Ann Njogu of COVAW. “Many times (people are reluctant) because of the selfish nature of our politics, but if the crisis of 2007 taught us anything, it is that no one is safe.”
As an active Twitter and social media activist, Edwin Kiama has been able to observe the Kenyan middle class’s online habits. “The things the middle class are most passionate about are not those that will effect change,” he says. “They are still caught in their comfort zones, which is why they would rather tweet about things than organise a meet. We all rant about traffic lights but we are still driving on the same streets.”
But, despite its shortcomings, Kiama is glad that social media has given Kenyans the opportunity to share news that may usually be ignored by mainstream media.
“What we are trying to do is change the narrative regarding the things that matter; for example, we have made things that are ‘unsexy’, such as #civiceducationke or #inequalityke, trend nationally via sustained tweets on the subject of civic education and then getting Kenyans engaged on that conversation until it becomes a national issue.”
Activist Boniface Mwangi believes more could be achieved if Kenyans used their Twitter handles effectively.
“The Kenyan middle class should realise that since they are cowards and can never go to the streets, they should use their Twitter handles responsibly by highlighting issues, giving opinion and effecting change,” he says.
For instance, he says that despite President Uhuru Kenyatta launching a website to fight corruption, little has been done, and the twitterati are silent over this.
“The president is a social media bigwig. Last year launched a website to fight corruption with a lot of fanfare, yet we haven’t seen a single case persecuted. The Kenyan middle class can help us hold the hashtag government responsible for its actions.”

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