Kenya: Debating the double-edged nature of citizen media

Last month, there was a bomb explosion at a downtown bus stop in Nairobi, Kenya. The bomb killed two people and injured more than 35. By the time the Kenyan mainstream media reported the incident, Kenyan bloggers had already written about it, posted photos and some of them speculated that the explosion could have been linked to Al-Queida or the outlawed Mungiki sect.

Two of the main Kenyan bloggers, Thinkers Room and Mental Acrobatics, looked at the performance of Kenyan blogs during this incident from two different and interesting angles. The main question was: what is the role of citizen media in reporting a tragic incident when official statements from the government have not been released and all the facts are not yet known?

Thinkers Room saw the way bloggers reported about the explosion as a clear example of “the double-edged nature” of personal media tools such as blogs and text messaging. On the other hand, Mental Acrobatics argued that the way this tragic incident was covered by citizen journalists highlighted the importance of blogs and citizen media in general. Immediately, a debate ensued in their comment sections about the role and responsibility of bloggers.

One the blogs that reported the incident, Small Timer, said this:

Draw your own conclusions from nairobi's latest menace. Suicide bomber? God help us all!!

And later on that day a post titled, State of Terrorism, read:

Reports reaching my desk are of a kenyan woman who tried to throw a greenade into a citi hoppa but the damn thing exploded before she could launch it into the bus. Chief! What's going on in this country? Are we becoming a terrorist state and who is responsible for this menace?

Mental Acrobatics speculated a possible terrorist attack, “Once again it looks like Nairobi has been hit by a terrorist attack.” However, he emphasized the fact that the information at the time was only a speculation, “As you can imagine details are a little sketchy so far”:

What has been reported so far is:
1. An explosion hit central Nairobi near Ambassador Hotel around 8.30am this morning
2. Apparently by a suicide bomber
3. Witnesses say they have seen six bodies although only one death apart from the bomber has been confirmed.
4. Witnesses also mention pages of the Koran strewn all over the place, whether these were carried by the bomber or one of the victims is not yet known.
Again this is all speculation at the moment. I’m sure the news teams will have some more information soon.

Thinkers Room wrote his first post urging bloggers to stop spreading rumors:

Additional information indicate police on the scene say the explosion could have been caused by a suicide bomber. Again, “could have“. This is not a conformation. We await a comprehensive official statement from the Police themselves to confirm anything. Until then I urge everyone, and in particular bloggers to resist the temptation to spread juicy sounding, scary rumours that may have grave repercussions if they turn out to be unfounded. Until we have established for a fact that it was a suicide bomber, let us not treat the innuendo and rumours as fact.

His second post was the one that led to an enlightening debate about the role of citizen media, particularly blogs in breaking news, especially when there isn’t enough information to draw conclusions. He wrote:

Today has just illustrated the double edged nature of pervasive communication like blogs, email and text messaging. There is no doubt that these platforms are powerful tools for communicating information. There is also no doubt that they are powerful tools for spreading disinformation. The rumours and innuendo that have gotten to me have left me speechless. Some of the accounts have received indicate hundreds dead and the whole block leveled. Blame has been laid at the doors of Al Qaeda, clumsily detonated grenades, Mungiki, time bombs, electronically detonated bombs and mobile phone detonated bombs.

He concluded:

What we don’t seem to realize is that:
1. The cause of the explosion is yet to be confirmed by those in the know. These happen to be the police. Not the papers. Not the Internet. Not the FM Stations. The police. Regardless of your opinion of them, of all the authorities to listen to, they should be the first.
2. Forwarding these rumours of suicide bombers has unnecessarily caused many people to panic
3. If it turns out the explosion was a mere gas cylinder, the damage will already have been done. Once you put something on the Internet, there it stays. For instance, do a search for suicide bombers Kenya or suicide bomber Nairobi and see what turns up. Since it is already apparent that sensationalism generally wins over facts, our reputation will have been needlessly sullied
4. Blogs, email and text messages, while lending themselves to informing, also lend themselves to abuse.
Until I hear official facts to the contrary, I will hold the opinion that if you emailed, texted or blogged about the explosion crediting it as a suicide bomber/Mungiki/Al Qaeda or any other explanation that has yet to be confirmed, you did yourself, your loved ones and your country a disservice.

Thinkers Room post elicited comments from bloggers and non-bloggers. Here are some of them:


Thanks M for the word of caution.
At such moments of high anxiety telling people to wait for official statements from the police might not be an easy sell but it is better than spreading facts you are not sure of.
Is there any hope of a reliable and frequently updated local news source, it amazed me how Nationmedia website was unavailable during this crisis. Does any of the local news media provide RSS news feeds?


Just a thought, but most people give a good amount of credit to professional news reporters who write/talk about news as it happens. Bloggers do the same, and in cases like this, often have the same sources. Here’s an interesting thought, don’t so many of us concur that the “government” spokespeople are spinning and relaying false information for their own purposes all the time? Maybe not everyone… but I tend to disregard “official” statements on what happened quite a bit. Most of that is spin, let’s be honest.

Kikuyumoja’s Realm:

I’d believe a tarot card reader than any Kenya government official. Kenya is going down the toilet while its citizens have their heads stuck in the cistern. The US embassy bombers also tried to flee the scene so anyone trying to spin this is either a terrorist sympathiser or has his head up Ali’s arse.


This is interesting pontification
When the fire alarm goes off, Should you shout fire or wait for the fireman to come and verify a fire or a false alarm? After the fireman has arrived, what would be the point in your shouting?… THIS IS BREAKING NEWS.
If you wait for the stories to be confirmed, then you might as well read it in the papers, NOT in emails or text messages.

Jogoo wa Shamba:

speculation particularly on tragedies like this one does lots of disservice to our country. The shilling has already lost some ground to the dollar and there is no telling who is going to issue another travel advisory.


My only contention is with the media who tend to report along the lines of ‘wind them up-watch them go i.e. they will spout whatever happens to be the current government line, the same government which in times of crisis, tends to put the best face on things, even if that face distorts reality. So you can see the obvious pitfall in relying on the latter as a reliable source of information.

Other than that, I fully agree with you, it was reckless of people to postulate opinions as facts. Regarding doing ourselves a great disservice, I am of the humble opinion that panicking is human nature, no matter how plausible or utterly insane the reason, its just how our society works. With time, maybe we will see the folly of our knee jerk reaction, but I will still maintain that while it may have come across as inexcusable, it was still understandable. Unacceptable, but given the circumstances and past events (previous bombing) justifiable.

Ms K:

“Professional news reporters” is an interesting term to apply to the Kenyan media, which has itself confessed that its rank and file is populated with many people that are not journalists. Having “The Standard” or “The Daily Nation” embossed on a lapel badge does not automatically make you an authority, or absolve you from the responsibility of due diligence. Papers have been known to be wrong. Pick any paper and within the first ten pages you can be assured you will find an ‘apology’ or a ‘clarification’.”

We risk throwing out the baby etc etc. Yes there are lots of incompetent reporters but there are just a many good ones.

I think the most important point you make (for me!) is about “responsibility of due diligence”. You’re right, we are all human, we make mistakes. If we are all that much more careful, the mistakes will definitely become less. But we are all each others eyes. When we see the mistakes, we should correct each other, and those corrected must take time to correct their mistake.

But we must also be careful not to castigate those who make mistakes too harshly. We are all learning my friend, we are all learning.


Quoting from Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility”. The power of the blog medium to give a voice to the person on the street to report and comment on things should be accompanied by the responsibility of due dilligence. There is freedom to write anything and everything. That, however, does not necessarily mean that anything and everything being written will result in the improvement of the reader.
Thanks M for educating blogren, some were so alarmist that i would not have ventured into town later in the day! It is a really powerful medium and before they publish hearsay at least have the due diligence to verify them as fact beforehand.

Mental Acrobatics wrote a response to Thinkers Room's post, pointing out that most blog posts, including his own, were full of qualifiers:

My own blog post on the topic is full of qualifiers, apparently this, apparently that. I even put a paragraph at the end of the post cautioning that this is all speculation at the moment as we await the facts.
A quick look at the KenyaUnlimited Aggregator shows many other Kenyan bloggers qualified their reporting too.

According to Mental Acrobatics, the websites of the main newspapers in Kenya, the Daily Nation and the East African Standard, did not have information about the explosion for a long time. Many Kenyans abroad rely on these websites for local Kenyan news.

Mental Acrobatics:

I would argue that it is stories like this that rather than showing the danger of blogs, HIGHLIGHT the importance of blogs and other citizen media. While the MSM was stuck in its procedures, bloggers wrote about what they had heard, seen or were told. There is nothing wrong with quoting primary sources. The historians amongst us can confirm the importance with which primary sources are regarded on any historical event. The eyewitness account, the man on the street as it were.
If you wanted to know what Kenyans were thinking and feeling at the time the blogs were a very good place to start.

His optimistic conclusion:

I firmly believe that the take up of the story by Kenyan bloggers helped generate this international interest. Don’t believe that bloggers have that much influence? Then explain why the “Blog Search button” is next to the “Advanced News Search” button on Google News or why Reuters has started featuring African bloggers prominently on its news site.

Here are some of the comments drawn by his post:


Okay. Stop whining.
Roomthinker caught you and you know it. So, learn from it and get over it.


No, I don't think this is about Mental vs. M, but instead about the need for a quick media in Kenya, a countrywide cellular-based network of trustworthy news reporters that produce the content we're missing from the MSM in time and sometimes at all.
You are right, bloggers the world over ARE the alternative newsmedia. However, like with everything else unregulated, it is not surprising that there is irresponsible “reporting” if you will.
As citizens our role is to continue seeking answers before, like Mungiki, problems that can be dealt with get out of hand!


Mental, these are my exact sentiments!
That bloggers really have a role to play as an information source. There may be a few cases where bloggers misrepresent but overall, I have found the blogosphere to be an alternative news source. Not only do we get timely news coverage, but also photographs. The limitation with mainstream media is that stories have to go through some ‘screening’ before they can be released to the masses. A blogger will tend to give his/her point of view, or his/her observation, usually very raw, but ‘as is’. And I think this is what people want, the bare truth, not ‘padded truth’.
On that note, I have been thinking that in the same way that KBW put up a page for bloggers to post comments on the recent KQ plane crash, perhaps the same should happen for any ‘hot topic’ that our country is currently facing. Such as the Mungiki menance, the campaigns, elections etc. I believe this will go along way in sensitizing Kenyans on important national matters, as well as to make our voices heard, towards building our country….

JKE again:

Mwari, put this comment function on the sms level and you're having Hash’ sms service he's been beating his drums for. LOL
On the other hand, ppl commenting and debating so often reminds me of KOL & other forums we've mentioned here before, but then – true – without interested citizens who contribute to the stories (and who says that news reporters dont get their stories from early bystanders anyways?), maybe there wouldnt be any story and public interest.
And on a very different note: this whole event clearly shows to me that Nairobians are still sensitive enough to show interest in such events, and havent already given up on “yet another horror story”.
Oh, and as for the sms alert: I meant a network of interested citizens who take pictures with their phones while knowing that anything they do may as well influence others. Not just sensationalism.

We can safely conclude that these kinds of debates show that the African blogosphere is rapidly growing, meeting new challenges, opportunities and demands. As with all new forms of media, there will be many debates about the role of bloggers in the African media landscape.


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