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Hate Speech and Social Media in Africa

Hate Speech and Social Media in Africa

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The world today is being defined by the many avenues for free expression beyond what could have even been imagined just 15 years ago. It has become a more open space with a hugely reduced room for privacy, especially with the rise of social media and networking, which has transformed the way individuals, groups, and society communicate. 

While social media has served as a platform for the creation of ideas and where opinions are influenced, expressed, and shaped, it has also become the prime carrier of fake news, conspiracy theories, and a tool for hate crimes and hate speech anywhere in the world, overtaking the traditional propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation machines. In Africa, social media has contributed to bringing changes, such as the Arab Spring and media swings in elections in West Africa, Zambia, Uganda, and Kenya. The power of social media in Africa is apparent in the instability in Ethiopia and in mobilizing the spectacular rallies that resulted in the toppling of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. It has also been part of the constant local and national conflict in South Sudan. 

The Duality of Social Media 

The advent of social media in the peace space has had mixed effects. In South Sudan and Ethiopia, social media has rallied communities against one another. In these two countries, the diaspora plays a twin role. One is being the cause of disinformation as the diaspora is not in complete touch with realities on the ground. Their contribution via social media influences perceptions and opinions. Households with access to mobile phones report to their relatives abroad about events in the local village and community. This usually amplifies local biases and does not always convey the complete picture of the issues and realities. 

In one case in Jong'lei State, local communities reported to the diaspora about cattle raids and the local outbreak of conflict in South Sudan in 2013. The diaspora made interpretations to the effect that the sitting government was out "to finish'' one of the communities, and therefore, the community needed to rise and defend itself proactively. This incited members of the community in the government forces and youth at the local community level. The crisis escalated when members of the army from that community went back to the community "to defend the community against another community.”

Members of the South Sudanese diaspora from all communities involved in the violence played a pivotal role in mobilizing resources, including financial and communication equipment, as well as social media coverage. They also engaged in incendiary hate speech, propaganda and misinformation on social media, further fueling localized violence.1

This phenomenon occurred in other states of South Sudan at that same time. The result was what appeared to be like a civil war. It took Bishop Emeritus Paride Taban, founder of Kuron Peace – Holy Trinity Peace Village, to call on South Sudan diaspora leaders around the world to quell the feeling of the local conflict in Jong'lei and the Lakes States. A similar diaspora situation has taken place in Ethiopia where the Ethiopian diaspora has not been adequately engaged yet. 

The second role the diaspora plays based on the use of social media is to rally needed resources from its members and friends. In these cases, the diaspora encourages their communities to support a particular cause. Unlike what has happened in South Sudan and Ethiopia, diaspora from other places have been seen to champion peacebuilding and development in the Eastern and Greater Horn of Africa through social media. 

In Burundi, part of the diaspora in the USA has mobilized resources for supporting health and education in their home country, like a state-of-the-art hospital being built in Kiguta. Next to the hospital is an academy promoting international-level education. The hospital is a component in a much wider community health program employing over 500 personnel, with the top cadre being drawn from highly qualified Burundi diaspora. Similarly, the academy has attracted highly educated teaching and administrative staff drawn from the Burundi diaspora. This was made possible through social media and networking. This is not to say that the situation in this region is without problems as social media has also mobilized resources for war and has promoted an increase in the small arms trade. 

Hate Speech, Online Disinformation, and Digital Insecurity

Hate speech and hate crimes have been described as that which include verbal expressions (private, personal, or public), publications of written matter (private, public, formal, informal, or non-formal) that provoke prejudice, hate, discrimination, hostility, uprising, and violence against an individual, or groups of individuals in society.2 Hate speech must meet a specific threshold to be considered as a breach beyond the freedom of expression as expressed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR 2020).3 Hate speech must therefore have provable evidence for it to be punishable by law.

Hate speech provokes prejudice, acts of discrimination, hostility, and violence, and it is an issue of concern in all societies across the world. However, in international human rights law circles, not all hate speech, even though abhorrent, attracts sanction or punishment by law. This reality is carried in the definitions of the international standards on the freedom of expression.4

Even though hate speech provokes, it must be proven at law to have arisen from evidential prejudice, causing advocacy that creates incitement and discrimination towards an individual, individuals as groups or a section(s) of society creating hostility, violence and leading to crimes against humanity (Article 19, 2020). This legality of the definition makes hate speech a very "subtle weapon" and hard to control or manage in the interest of peace. This is being demonstrated in Hungary and other states in Eastern Europe since the advent of mass human mobility as the state reacted to the migrant crisis (International Centre for Migration Policy Development, 2020).5

In countries and national states where law enforcement organs and structures are underfunded, weak, or small compared to the population, collection of quality evidence, enforcement of rights, and protection of peace are left to the hands of local communities. At this level, it is community peace pillars that work to uphold peace (World Renew Report 2016). 

In the Eastern and Greater Horn of Africa, this status for most countries in which they have large population cohorts, the law enforcement organs and structures lack sufficient funds, quality personnel, equipment, and competencies in handling hate speech. There has been an overriding shift of the peace space given the rapid transformation technology has created with mobile telephony. Local communities have done more in the maintenance of peace than the structures of the government machinery.

Hate Speech and its Effects  

Not all peace activists, practitioners, peacebuilders, and researchers have a full appreciation and knowledge of the concept of "hate speech" as it is used and applied currently, based on the UN Conventions. Moreover, the Conventions on hate speech were developed before technology was at the level it is at today. Technology has created expanded possibilities by which hate speech can be conveyed quickly and to a large population, inciting an almost immediate response, such as an uprising. Yet, the legal landscape and interpretation of the UN Conventions on hate speech and the relevant laws have not fully caught up with technology and how it has propelled hate speech. These contextual factors are important to have in the background when handling the elements of hate speech and social media. 

Even though parts of expressions of hate speech have always existed in society around the world, there is a surge in the way hate speech has increased. Soon after the end of the First World War, the "black emancipation movements" in the USA and other places where slavery existed began rising, pointing to the varied slang language perpetrated by centers of power, governing, and institutional structures that subtly purveyed hate. 

By the start of the Second World War, an uprising by colonized countries like India and in African countries engaged the colonial powers demanding freedom and self-governance of the people by leaders of their choice. During this time, many epitaphs and slang terms were raised that referred to the colonized societies, and these terms and slang amplified the hate speech of the colonizers.  

In current history, socio-political circles promote terms and terminologies that are used to describe individuals, groups, and structures in ways that provoke hate. A case in point is the war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Whole nations were also described in a hateful language like Cambodia, Vietnam, Colombia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, among others. In Africa, the demonizing of Mugabe, Gbagbo, and others was carried more by the press and centers of power in the industrialized north.

In the age of social media, online hate speech has increased globally, and governments, as well as the corporations that operate online platforms and services, are unable to control, curb or enforce good conduct in the use of online services and media content.6 Technology has made it possible to respond almost immediately, rallying and galvanizing perceptions, opinions, and emotive reactions for action, many of which are irrational and impulsive. This must be seen as the power technology has to contribute to hate speech. 

The current effects of hate speech in Africa carry some significant attributes. First, hate speech has become a weapon in community hostilities and conflict. Second, hate speech becomes prominent during political elections even in peaceful nations. Third, hate speech is purveyed more in social media than other forms of media. And lastly, hate speech incites discrimination. In particular, the hostility and violence engendered by hate speech affect the youth. As a result, violations of rights and peace are committed by the youth within the communities. The leaders behind the hate speech are usually not visible and are not themselves apprehended when hostilities, crime, violence, and conflict occur. 

Digital Insecurity

Cyber insecurity is a reality, and even though it has not been in the limelight in the Eastern and Greater Horn region, it has been attributed to the recruitment of people into radicalized, extremist violence. This phenomenon has also been found in social media during political election periods. Personally, and at my level as an author, and the organizations with which I work, the contribution made by social media has been mostly on the research and publication of radicalized, extremist violence, and participation on platforms, and on forums where the issue is discussed for enriching and creating up-to-date learning and knowledge. Working concept notes and position papers have also been developed and published online. 

Part of the scheme in the recruitment into radicalized, extremist violence is disinformation and covert threats to those who have been recruited in case they do not comply. These threats are upon the recruits, their families, and their relatives. People are using coded language on social media to perpetuate these threats and disinformation. The governments have increased surveillance and monitoring of online threats in this regard, but they are not always successful, as was the case in Kenya during the Garissa University event, the occurrence of extremist violence in Uganda, and other incidents. In more fragile states except for Somalia, governments have failed to curb online insecurity and the disinformation associated with it. 

Alternative Media for Peacebuilding

As indicated earlier in this article, social media and technology have reduced the spaces for privacy and promoted options that could be used for cyber insecurity. 

Did social media limit the space for personal individual freedoms for speech and expression? No, but it has inhibited the space on how that freedom and privacy must be managed. Has the advent of online cyber insecurity reduced spaces for peacebuilding practitioners? No, it has not, but it has created spaces within which practitioners may innovate in the creation of online apps for peacebuilding, such as early warning, surveillance, and networking of response teams in case peace is under threat at the local community level. 

In one community in Nakuru in Kenya, communities used simple text messages on mobile phones of key community persons charged with monitoring breaches to peace. As a result, the community peace pillars in that community were able to rally against politicians who incite communities against one another. This led to reduced violence in the last elections in Kenya in that locality known for election-related violence. To promote lessons from this community, the agencies with which I work networked university students on peacebuilding to link with community peace pillars of this community to learn and document more on how peace worked in that community locality.

Options for Best Practices

This article will not distill specific best practices. However, it will point to specific areas in which best practices could be built or sought. Learning from elsewhere in the world, especially Africa, would be essential. 

Based on the experience of HIV-AIDS, Ebola Virus, and COVID-19, some lessons on mobilizing communities and addressing the spread of the viruses constitute a positive platform from which to learn how to mobilize communities in how to behave in the event of incitement by hate speech. The advent of control of the spread of these diseases has been predominantly linked to behavior and behavioral change, personal/individual choices, and personal conduct. This is the level at which hate speech can be moderated. Lessons obtained from Uganda, DR Congo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia would be beneficial in this space.

Technology, particularly social media and other online platforms, will continue to be influential. Technology experts could support the innovation in the peacebuilding space to help peace practitioners acquire needed skills and competencies. This could include how to create apps that can allow users to learn the components of peacebuilding. Such apps could include but are not exclusive to peace games, peace puzzles, and other forms of online engagement that affect a person's choice and personal behavior. These apps could attract youth and others in ways that teach concepts of peace and enhance choices for peace.

In the space for specific training related to hate speech, media, online and social media, there could be useful learning sessions around an introduction to Article 19 and the concepts of ICCPR, and the relevant United Nations and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Conventions.

Kisuke Ndiku is a researcher, peacebuilding practitioner, and an independent consultant in Kenya working in the Greater Horn and East Africa Region. He works with PRECISE, a regional agency, with advisory, consulting, coaching, mentoring, training, program design, development, and evaluation services. He has served on boards of organizations and as a Country Representative of donor agencies and has held portfolios as Director and Advisor to agencies.

1 Armed violence involving community-based militias in greater Jonglei January – August 2020, March 2021, joint report of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), p. 12.

2 Stop funding Hate, 2020,

3 Hate speech explained: A summary, ARTICLE 19, 2020,

4 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 1976, See Also Human Rights Law Review 12:4, December 2012, Published by Oxford University Press.

5 Reporting Migration: A handbook on migration reporting for journalists, International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD)

6 Hate Speech on Social Media: Global Comparisons, Council of Foreign Relations, 2019.

Photo: UNMISS / Eric Kanalstein, Hope in short supply as fighting in South Sudan escalates ahead of decisive Addis peace talks. NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0

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