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Kenyan government takes cautious approach toward social media

More politicians go online, but seek to avoid abuses of technology that can lead to violence

The Kenyan government is gearing up to put controls on social media as more politicians engage the public in debate online.

Kenya is set to hold general elections later this year and the government, while encouraging use of Web services a way to communicate, is also expected to take action to try avoid political incitement through social media and other online services.

After the 2007 elections, Kenya was engulfed in violence. The mainstream media was criticized for either downplaying or sensationalizing the violence, depending on the political leanings of the media group in question. One of the main social media chat forums in the country, Mashada.com, was shut down.

"We are making contact with most social media sites," said Bitange Ndemo, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication. "We shall do what it takes to protect Kenyans from offensive material including working with established social media like Twitter; I am glad that most social sites will not want to associated with such material," he added.

"Unlike 2007/2008, this time we shall fight back and with the assistance of the platform owners, I am sure we shall succeed," added Ndemo, commenting on Twitter's recent announcement that it will work with governments to remove offensive content.

However, social media experts feel that the public is more educated and with the passage of laws against incitement to violence, people will be more careful while engaging in debate online.

Since 2007, the number of Internet users on PCs has risen from 2 million to 4 million, according to Communications Commission of Kenya estimates, while those accessing Internet via mobile phones is projected to be 12 million. Prominent politicians aspiring for presidential, governor and senate seats have hired social media experts to engage with online communities.

Mark Kaigwa, a social media consultant and founder of mark.co.ke, said he feels that the online situation will be well managed, taking into account the kind of efforts the government has made in educating the public on benefits of technology while opening up data to be accessed online and via mobile phones.

"Many social media planners and tacticians are making progress and staking their claims on connecting the political class to this online community; overall it is positive that politicians have taken this step to approach and get involved in social networks," Kaigwa said.

In February Mzalendo.com relaunched its portal, designed to allow citizens to communicate with their representatives in Parliament and rate their services. The website is expected to play a key role in online debates.

"For the first time since independence, Kenyans can scrutinize their MPs' speeches in Parliament; we have also created score cards to allow citizens to make value judgements about their MPs contributions and accessibility," said Conrad Akunga, Mzalendo.com co-founder.

Mzalendo comments are currently moderated to guard against abuse but this may not be the case in Facebook and Twitter comments set up by political aspirants.

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