Authoritarian regimes have long had a complicated relationship with media and communications technologies. The Unfreedom Monitor is a Global Voices Advox research initiative examining the growing phenomenon of networked or digital authoritarianism. This extract is from the report on Kenya, from the series of reports to come out of the research under the Unfreedom Monitor. Read the full report here.
This report provides an overview of the most prolific instances of digital authoritarianism in Kenya. The report will debrief the most relevant actions and decisions taken by the Kenyan government in recent years that leverage the internet and technology in order to achieve certain political goals. The major incidents highlighted include communications and online surveillance, misuse of personal data and data breaches during elections, and misinformation and sponsored disinformation campaigns. Analysing how these actions are sanitised and justified by the government and how this is often permissible under Kenyan law. Further, looking into the harms and human rights abuses that arise from such incidents, this report concludes by analysing the general impact such actions have on democracy and civil liberties, and makes recommendations arising from the aforementioned analysis.
Digital authoritarianism has a grave impact on governance and public life in Kenya, and is thus a human rights issue requiring urgent attention. In today’s digital landscape, disinformation and misinformation are circulating online at an accelerated pace. The government has more access to data and information than ever before, which it uses to surveil citizens and target journalists or activists online. Moreover, the advent of the digital age is well complemented by the government’s integration of technological systems capable of operating as spyware. Though the internet is advancing and developing at a fast pace, it is becoming less and less free in Kenya. It appears that the Kenyan government inches closer and closer to digital authoritarianism and, as a result, democracy is withering under its influence.
This report identifies the following crucial components that are necessary to guarantee success in this direction. First, maintaining democracy depends on safeguarding citizens’ right to participate in political choice. In order to effectively design laws, regulations, and other measures relevant to digital technology and the online realm, civil society must be actively involved. Online spaces must be accessible to journalists and members of civil society without restriction or censorship. Further, the right to freedom of expression must be upheld both online and offline. In a similar vein, Nanjala Nyabola stated in her book “Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Kenya,” that “digital is changing the way we do politics and international relations, and this creates a new urgency for understanding the digital ecosystem, and specifically understanding the digital rights of citizens.”
Kenya has experienced impressive progress in the digitalisation of its economy and governance, with growing internet usage and ICT adoption. Nonetheless, the acceleration of internet technologies and other new and developing technologies has considerably increased the toolkit available to the government for repression and social control, escalating the challenges to human rights. What the research on Kenya demonstrates is that the potential for the internet and digital technology to advance democracy is being stifled by the rise of digital authoritarianism. The surveillance, monitoring and interception of digital communications, the sloppily regulated collection and processing of personal data, as well as the weaponisation of a weak digital rights legal structure have all been used by the Kenyan government as tools to fundamentally undermine political choice, the right to vote, and freedoms like the right to free expression, assembly, and association. This new-found control has tightened the grip of authoritarianism while sacrificing citizens’ digital rights and democratic participation.
What can be concluded is that the same digital technologies that allow for freedoms and that scale
political debates can allow for repression, most notably through data misuse, widespread surveillance, false information, and internet shutdowns that restrict online freedom of expression. This participation of citizens online and the advancement of online civic engagement can be leveraged to counterbalance state power. If citizens are well informed and their digital rights empowered by a robust civil society, practices of digital authoritarianism can be countered successfully, or at least slowed down.
Technology is often wrongly viewed as politically neutral, when the truth is that whether it has a beneficial or bad impact on politics depends on who owns it or has considerable access to it. Where an authoritarian government has considerable access, it cannot be neutral. When thinking about Kenya’s democratic future in the digital age, one cannot ignore the rapid rise of artificial intelligence, which can only be reasonably expected to steepen the existing challenges to democracy. Communication and information sharing between people, the government, and society have been significantly impacted by AI and data optimisation technologies in politics. The looming age of artificial intelligence within this context presents a threat to Kenya’s democracy. From discriminatory issues of biased standardised governance technologies, to deepfakes that blur the lines of truth and reality, as technology advances and becomes more complex, it seems that there is great potential for democracy to be further disrupted.
Read the full report here.