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The Digital Activist Class

Ethan makes some excellent and intriguing points here:

There’s a strong overlap between the emerging middle class in the developing world and the world of citizen media. Bloggers in Africa are highly educated, and generally are wealthier than the average African. (It’s not cheap, in African terms, to afford the amount of internet access you need to maintain a blog.) Kenya’s got a large middle class, and it’s got one of the largest blogger populations on the continent, behind South Africa, Egypt and very few others.

This group of bloggers and their peers are documenting the election crisis in a way that’s unprecedented in Africa. Traditionally, we’ve heard about African crises either long after they took place (Rwanda) or through the eyes of international media (Darfur, northern Uganda, eastern DRC). In Kenya, we’re hearing raw, emotional accounts from people directly affected by this violence. These accounts are complicating mainstream media narratives. Immediately after the election, many newspapers offered a narrative of the Kenyan violence in terms of “long-simmering ethnic tensions” - bloggers reminded us that these tensions had been consciously stoked by political parties, and that the nation had been largely free of serious ethnic tension for most of its history. As the violence has taken on a clear ethnic cast, bloggers have reminded us how unexpected and how shocking the violence is against the backdrop of Kenyan history. ...

Kenya post-conflict was fertile ground for citizen journalists. Juliana Rotich, visiting family in Eldoret, documented voting procedures with photos on her blog, before switching to Twitter to document the crisis after Kibaki’s announcement of election “results”. Because internet connectivity was down in so much of the country, the ability to post via mobile phone and Twitter became a powerful tool for real-time reporting. Daudi Were took to the streets with his camera and documented confrontations between police and demonstrators within the ODM movement. I asked whether he was concerned for his safety in producing these photos - he explained that Kenyan police, even the elite police units that occupied the Nairobi street the first week of January, seemed to respect the rights of journalists to document the crisis, including citizen journalists.

Ory Okolloh turned her popular blog into a group space, allowing writers whose voices usually reach a much smaller audience use of her megaphone. And she used her blog to float the idea of mapping violent incidents - and peace efforts - throughout the country. Kenyans inside and outside the country picked up the idea and launched Ushahidi less than a week later. Weeks later, the site now is accepting reports via SMS, and includes a feature that lets users visualize the spread of violence over the course of these painful few weeks. (It’s worth mentioning that Ushahidi shows only incidents reported by users - human rights groups will likely produce a more comprehensive map over time, showing more incidents. But Ushahidi’s importance, I believe, is helping people visualize the spread of violence in realtime, as these incidents are reported.)

As we discussed digital media in Kenya, it became clear that not all the stories were good news., a popular Kenyan bulletin board site, was an important locus for citizen reporting during the crisis as it accepted posts via SMS. But as the tensions after the election grew, discussions on the board became increasingly strident and ethnically tense. Moderators had a difficult time maintaining civility on the boards, and for a period last week, the board was suspended, with a message urging participants to visit, a site collecting testimonies against tribalism… and prayers for the future of Kenya. The forum is back up, with a very strict set of posting rules.

Similarly, while SMS has been a powerful force for good in the wake of the elections, it’s also been a double-edged sword. Mobile phone penetration in Kenya is quite high, and complex services, like money transfer via mobile phone, are available and have evidently been used to good effect in the wake of the crisis. Mobile phone credit became quite scarce during the post-election days as many credit sellers stayed home from their booths - people who had credit on their phones could send it to family members via the network and remain in touch. But R from “What An African Woman Thinks” reports that SMS was also used to spread rumors about unrest, and messages inciting ethnic hatred.

The complexity of the digital reaction to the Kenyan situation is indicative of what we can expect in crisis situations in the future. In countries with a middle class - and a blogger and hacker class - we can expect a wide range of post-crisis interventions, some new, some repeated from past crises. The SEA-EAT blog community that emerged from South Asian bloggers in response to the boxing day tsunami has been able to assist with other natural disasters, including Katrina. Similarly, I suspect that the mapping mashup created by Ushahidi will be used in the wake of other disasters, helping people visualize a crisis unfolding in real time. Other tools will be created appropriate to the specific situation.

My hope is that these tools will change how crisis situations are covered in the media. I gave a talk almost two years ago titled, “Don’t Speak - Point” which suggested that the internet would change advocacy, making it harder for people to speak on behalf of others, and easier to point to the voices of those others. This is becoming increasingly true in crisis situations - rather than speaking for my Kenyan friends who are affected by this situation, I can point to the dozens of ways they’re raising their voices… and complicating the stories being written about their country.

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