Grace Mutung’u researches on ICT policy in Kenya and Africa, with specialisation in digital rights, governance, development and digitalisation. She has been involved in ICT policy development processes over the past 10 years and was a 2017 Open Technology Fund Senior fellow studying information controls at election times in East Africa. She is a curator on Sub-Saharan Africa internet governance issues at the Geneva Internet Platform and an affiliate at the Kenya ICT Action Network (@KICTANet) where she carries out policy and legal analysis.We speak to her about digital identity, e-governance, data protection and creating a fairer internet.

Technology was integral to the 2017 election in Kenya. How did it play such a major role?

If you want to consider technology, there are two broad areas you can look at it from. One is the technology used to deliver processes during the election. For example, we had biometric voter registration and biometric voter identification. It may sound like the most mundane thing, but actually when you compare to the previous elections, people were identified much faster, the process took under five minutes, which meant that the whole election process was more efficient, because people could vote, and then go back to other activities. This reduces the tension that comes with a very contested election.

The second use was in the political campaign and mobilisation. If you look at parties’ budgets and how they used their money, most of them reduced their spending on traditional media for publicity and went straight to digital media. There were a lot of new private messaging apps, like WhatsApp, used to send personalized messages and sometimes they were very manipulated. There was also use of SMS. People received messages that were guided towards suppressing them from voting or encouraging them to vote, which to an extent distorts democracy and the whole idea of people expressing their will.

You wrote that “Tech is key in African elections and the results are worth live and death.” Why is this?

Elections in Kenya and Africa in general are very contested. Elections have for many years been the only way to access resources, and this access to resources is connected to your ethnicity, so especially in Kenya it has always been about your person getting the seats, so they can help your community to get access to resources. When I say access, I mean even the smallest things. Jobs, education opportunities, healthcare – all these things are connected to the leadership.

In what ways are government and the political class investing to control digital infrastructure, leveraging these platforms and generating influence?

The use of social media in Kenya for campaigning and political messaging is very much connected to the demographics. There are so many young people. In fact, over 70% of people in Kenya are below the age of 35. We are a youth heavy kind of population. Every politician or political party is interested in reaching the young people. They used different methods. Sometimes they reached young people directly, sometimes through their networks or their families, on the older people who have an influence on these young people.

The use of social media in Kenya for campaigning and political messaging is very much connected to the demographics. There are so many young people. In fact, over 70% of people in Kenya are below the age of 35.

Another interesting angle to youth is that we have a lot of educated but unemployed youth. If you were contesting for seats, it was possible to buy a database containing the contacts of your potential voters, including the mobile phone contact and this data could be disaggregated to tribes, because it is very easy to assume the type of the person from their name. So you could send messages to these people according to their tribes, this is where the personalization came in. I think this shows that we need to deal with the problem of youth and employment. All these talents that are just lying around could be used for good, otherwise somebody else will use them for their own ends. We need to be more deliberate to ensure that these young people are engaged in a more productive wave for the common good of the people.

So looking beyond Kenya, in terms of e-voting and e-governance on a global scale, what impact do you see in the long term? What are the opportunities?

In Kenya there have been mixed reactions. Some people think it would contribute to even more efficiency, because everything stops for elections in Kenya. People travel up country, shops close and nothing else is done. The focus of the whole country is on the elections. So if there is a way to speed up the process that would be good. The challenge is in building trust in such a system. In Africa trust has always been a huge problem. Most of the time people do not believe in the election results, sometimes they accept them and sometimes they don’t, so this leads to conflict in society. People have been talking about new technologies, like blockchain, that would make things more immutable and assure security. I personally, think we are still in a more experimental stage. I think we need to manage these problems before we think of applying technology to the whole process.

During the Trump campaign, Jared Kushner said to Fortune that they kept doing rallies just to “maintain an appearance of normality”. We went from the Arab Spring and the Obama campaign to Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, Cambridge Analytica and the fake news industry. How did political campaigning change and what are the consequences? 

I find it quite hazardous that we are focusing on personalized campaigning, especially because it’s being applied in a dehumanizing and demeaning way. During the Obama campaign, there was a lot of targeted messaging, but it was applied in a more open way. There wasn’t so much negative campaigning as we assume right now. This is something we need to deal with. We need to call out this kind of behavior, but it’s different from society to society. I don’t think, for example, that it helps to call out Trump. We all need to work more towards preserving a society where everybody feels human despite their differences. The tendency to dehumanize people is not a good long term strategy for any society.

These days, we all seem to blame the global rise of alt-right movements on social media. But until some years ago, they were a laboratory of freedom. What happened? Can we restore the trend?

If you think about the automobile industry, when cars just came out, I am sure there were a lot of road accidents which led to the whole car safety industry. And now things have become much better. I believe we are going to settle in as humans, as a digital society. One way of doing this is decentralizing social media and having more diverse localised content. Another way is by having more quality content. I get excited when I see traditional media companies dedicating resources to social media and trying to tell interesting stories that will occupy people’s time on social media. That’s great because it is contributing to better use of social media. I keep thinking that social media companies should find a way of incentivising people to communicate this kind of content.

 We all need to work more towards preserving a society where everybody feels human despite their differences. The tendency to dehumanize people is not a good long term strategy for any society.

You said that ‘much of the fake news and negative campaigning in Kenya was very professionally done. They really understood the landscape and made the news as easy as possible to consume. Is there an industry shaping these messages into this language? 

In the 2017 elections season in Kenya, the political parties took advantage of society. They found influencers, they found people who make memes for fun but don’t get paid for it, and they incorporated them into their political campaigns. There were resources that were entirely dedicated to this. This is how they were able to pollute the internet environment with a lot of negative campaigns that were really easy to consume and very digestible. And of course with the private messaging apps like Whatsapp, the typical thing to do is that once you see something interesting, you pass it on to your groups so these messages got a lot of traction. You do not even assume that there will be any bias when you get sent a message from someone you trust, so you just consume it and believe it to be true.

You once said “It would be interesting to try to find out why people spread harmful content.” You also said that fake news helps put topics on the table. 

I am interested in finding out why people are posting this kind of content, because I think if we can get to the root of that, we would know why these messages are so viral, why they spread so fast and why they have such a big audience. I don’t think that many local psychologists have tried to contextualize, to help us understand how this marketing strategy is related to our conditions in life. The people who are creating the content are so young, they probably didn’t live through the dictatorship in Kenya, they probably don’t know the cost that was paid for us to have this space where we can express ourselves.

Is hate speech something inherent on the Internet or is it just a temporary disease? What’s the antidote?

Hate speech, for me is only amplified by the internet. Hate speech exists because there are people who don’t believe in the humanity of others, or don’t find it a big deal to demean others to get political support. There are all these measures that companies and platforms like Facebook are applying to filter out hate speech and to make sure that it doesn’t go viral, so technology might help. But I think we need to think more about instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and what it means in the digital world. We need to be having more discussions because for some reason, the people who spread hate speech are very connected to states and to state power, so the mechanisms that exist for checking state power should also be applied to checking state power on the internet.

Do you think it has something to do with anonymity?

I don’t think anonymity contributes as much to hate speech as it contributes to sheltering those who need their voices heard without their persona being seen. It is like using a hammer to kill a fly, to say that we no longer want to support encryption because there is hate speech on the internet. Anonymity helps so much more than it destroys.

Field research in Africa and other regions, for example, Turkey, reveal that authority-led information manipulation is assuming different patterns. In other words, they shut down or reopen the internet, TV and radio stations at will. Surely this kind of disruption is not the answer?

There is a joke that when you talk about African elections you have to talk about what time the shutdown will happen. There two ways that governments have taken it. A lot of governments just shut down the internet if they can’t control what is being discussed. Other governments such as Kenya decided to leave the Internet open for political gain, but this was after a lot of advocacy. The problem with shutting down the internet is that it shows a very narrow view, that the internet is just for political communication and expression yet the internet is useful for so much more. The internet is banking, assembly, healthcare, education. So it’s quite ironic. On the one hand African governments are making proposals for connecting the unconnected, making plans to bring more broadband, but they cannot stand the political communication that takes place on the internet. I have a lot of hope that this is a passing cloud, that the more society integrates with the internet, the less government will be taking such measures.

Kenya’s digitalisation was heavily boosted by the Chinese. What does this Chinese presence mean for Kenya? Could Internet Infrastructure control be a subtle form of colonisation?

Kenya’s digitalization has a lot to do with Kenya and China relations. The Chinese have boosted our infrastructure, our energy. China has also given us a philosophy that is very different from what we have been practicing for, at least, the last 20 years. One of the foundations of digitalization is Digital Identity and the Chinese model is single to our truth, where you collect all the data and put it all together in a single place, so the government has monopoly over this data and sort of gives you identity. This is very different from the African way. Africans only started going for official identification in order to access government resources and government services. And even when going for official identification, you only give one of your identities. I have not met an African who doesn’t have several identities.

I have my government name or my official name, but I also have names that I acquired as I was going through cultural processes. In my neighborhood, for example, most of my neighbors don’t even know my government name. They just know me as the mother of my kids, because that is my identity and it is the new persona that I take. So when the government insists on everybody only having this one identification, they are taking us back to this singularity, which is something that should be interrogated. I’m not saying that everything the Chinese do is bad, I’m just saying that we should not accept it before we’ve interrogated it and we should find ways to adapt it to our multiplicities and our culture. I find the relationship there very problematic and I think we still have a chance to straighten it out and to make an identification that facilitates us rather than tying us to one idea that is not ours and doesn’t truly respond to our needs.

What is the big deal with 5G? And why are the US and China going to war over it? What are the implications in Kenya?

The way our world is ordered, the fastest in the race gets everything. For most technologies the US has always been faster. 5G is super fast, it’s a big revolution and in places like Africa, where we use a lot of mobile technologies, it will be a big deal. Most of the world’s population is in these countries. So it is a huge market, but the rest of us don’t understand why the market can’t be shared and why the winner takes all.

How can we protect citizens from the risks of big data in light of 5G?

With 5G speed there comes such a huge risk in terms of data protection because it means that more and more data can be collected, which means machine learning and other artificial intelligence systems can learn better. If we don’t have policies or safeguards on how our data can be used, we are in a very bad place. There’s a need for defining how data can be used. I wish the race for 5G was connected to solving the world’s problems. I wish they were fighting for 5G so they can deliver healthcare to remote parts of Africa that don’t have access to good roads, or places where women have huge problems during childbirth because they don’t have access to any medical care. But it seems our world is not yet at that level of caring for humanity as a whole. So the battle for 5G is still about expanding markets and acquiring new market share.

I’m not saying that everything the Chinese do is bad, I’m just saying that we should not accept it before we’ve interrogated it and we should find ways to adapt it to our multiplicities and our culture.

When it comes to data, a lot of people just don’t understand how it works.

This is exactly the problem of data and the digital economy, it is very obscure. People don’t really get it, they don’t really understand what privacy is because it is a very abstract idea. And yet, data collection is happening and it keeps on happening despite your knowledge or lack of it. It’s one of those spaces where there needs to be much more public discussion about what the government would do with this data, because it is acquiring more and more power. Governments should be carrying out digitalization in a way that it builds more trust and then citizens would be more willing to participate in the digital economy. It needs to open itself up.

What efforts are being applied to close the digital divide, in Kenya but also beyond?

There are lots of efforts being applied to close the digital divide, in Kenya and in the world at large. One of the interventions I find very interesting is where communities are building their own networks. These communities are in rural areas where it doesn’t makes commercial sense for businesses to go, but at the end of the day these communities still need the internet, so they build their own infrastructure and buy from the nearest service provider. I find it exciting because, other than just bridging the digital divide, these kind of interventions help women, groups can come together and form a network, they help the youth – many of whom are unemployed – because the youth not only bring and build the network, they also bring skills on how to maintain the network. Because humans are social beings I think they are the best solution for human problems.

Children are glued to social media from an early age and as a result they are being data-profiled. What effect might this have in the future? 

In Kenya, the government is collecting the metrics of children from the age of 6, and digitizing the whole education system. There’s a big debate on what should be done with that data during the transition to adulthood. When these children reach adulthood, is that data still needed or should that data be destroyed? This curiosity to read people and to know people is new, and there should be some caveats to protect children. We should have special protection for children’s data to make sure that children are not being profiled to shape their futures in the sense that their decisions are made by other people. Then again, the internet is for children, because they are the future. So we should also find ways for children to learn as much as they can about the internet, to express themselves on it, to understand it, to be comfortable with the internet but in a safe environment. If we do those things, I think we’ll be preparing them for a good future.

If you had a magic wand, what would be your top three actions in terms of creating a more equitable digital society?

If I had a magic wand I would want to see more Africans, especially the ones in Africa, creating the Internet and not just consuming the internet. This would be really key for me because I have always had to adapt to whatever is on the internet, I find it hard to see my authentic self on the internet. Then the second would be to see more people own the internet in a more decentralised way. It would be awesome to see more communities creating their own infrastructure and their own internet. It would lead to a thriving society. The third would be to have more people represent themselves. We imagine what children need, so we make decisions on their behalf, we imagine what people who are unconnected need so we make decisions on how to connect them, sometimes with negative results. So it would be nice to provide more opportunities for people to have their own voice on the future of this great technology.