A Local Turn: Influencing Online Peacebuilding through Evidence-based Interventions in Kenya’s 2022 Elections
This article is based on a study for Mercy Corps’ Umoja Kwa Amani (“United for Peace” in Swahili), a 12-month election violence prevention and mitigation program whose goal was to “promote peaceful elections in Kenya by strengthening stakeholders’ capacity to prevent and mitigate election violence and contribute to a peaceful political transition around the August 2022 elections.” The use of technology was a key pillar in the Umoja Kwa Amani (UKA) program in mobilizing community capacities for peacebuilding, conflict mitigation, and civic education, as well as improving coordination and collaboration between and among community, county, and national-level stakeholders in early warning and early response mechanisms. To complement UKA, Mercy Corps implemented a program christened Mitigating Election Violence through Social Media Micro-Influencers, whose goals are to mitigate the potential of social media to incite conflict, promote the digital space as a forum for non-violence discussions, and build evidence around the effectiveness of social media influencers as tools for promoting peace and mitigating conflict.
Interestingly, only a little of the literature examined appraises the role of social media as a tool for peacebuilding. This reality may be possible because only a few studies, programs, or interventions focus on such a role explaining the gap in the literature and further justifying the salience of both aforementioned study and the UKA’s social media campaign/intervention.
Social media’s impacts need continuous examination through studies inspired by local epistemic positions for proper program interventions that benefit the local population. This is the viewpoint of a decolonial, analytical framework to social media and peacebuilding guided by the UKA’s Learning Agenda to inform practical intervention via a UKA social media campaign. In this framework, social media is a double-edged sword used for conflict and peacebuilding.
For the study’s qualitative methods, a triangulated methodology consisted of desk research, survey, and group discussion. The desk research evidence mapping utilized a decolonial analytical framework to unveil evidence from the last 15 years (2007-2022), that coincided with key controversial elections in Kenya in terms of time scope (2007; 2013; 2017). It revealed some emerging implementation gaps in the call for the “local turn”, which means prioritizing local voices in peacebuilding, established by considering the year of publication of every document analyzed. Key documents included: case studies, working papers, theses, reports, journal articles, books, and book chapters, as well as documents from key state agencies/institutions involved in the electoral process.
Theory of Change
Critical new theories of technology and theories of change point out how proper planning, participation, coordination, and evaluation of social media use by critical stakeholders (civil society, government, citizens, technology companies, the international community, and all of society) can help establish long-term goals for peacebuilding. The argument, in this case, was that social media can foster a greater understanding of each other and democracy than promote hate and division. If proven, social media can then effectively support peacebuilding in Kenya. However, a desk review of the literature revealed minimal evidence on how social media can be positively used for peacebuilding offline to argue for its role in peacebuilding in general and establish a relationship between what happens online and offline.
A Local Turn
Despite significant local evidence on social media, electoral conflict, and peacebuilding in Kenya, local knowledge is insufficiently used in designing and adapting peacebuilding programs thus exposing the cosmetic approach to the idea of the “local turn” in contemporary peacebuilding in Africa. The desk review, document, and institutional analysis in the UKA study revealed that most of the evidence was locally produced with a general tone that calls for the local turn conceptually and methodologically. However, this amount of evidence was not largely applied in program interventions at the praxis level therefore it remains largely theoretical.
This result revealed that the problem was not a lack of locally generated knowledge or evidence but rather a gap at the implementation level exposing the lack of coordination and or cooperation. Perhaps the problem was a lack of clear policy that can help synchronize interventions from state agencies, civil society organizations, academia, youth movements, and donor community.
Double-edged Sword: Online Survey
An online survey centered on key objectives and questions related to the potential role of social media in electoral conflict and peacebuilding indicated over 50 percent of 260 respondents found that social media continues to play a double-edged sword. Therefore, there is a need to continuously support local evidence production to inform program interventions in this context for further learning and adaptation of programs in the future.
Emotions and Social Media: Focus Group Discussion
Nevertheless, since social media and electoral conflict involve emotions, this particular study also relied on a focus group discussion (FGD) to assess the role of emotions in social media hate speech, misinformation, disinformation, and consequently violence during elections. One FGD with UKA influencers involved six participants in a purposively sampled county forming the epicenter of post-election violence in Kenya (Kondele, Kisumu). The purpose of the FGD was to gauge emotions and to build evidence around the effectiveness of social media influencers as a tool for promoting peace and mitigating conflict by qualitatively assessing how social media impacts personal relationships revealing that social media affects personal relations.
The FGD revealed the relations between emotive offline politics, online hate speech, attendant misinformation, and disinformation deliberately engineered by politicians, consequently fuel offline violence perpetrated by predominantly unemployed youthful supporters of political aspirants.
Key Findings and Recommendations
Sixty-two percent of the respondents agreed that local interventions are the most effective, revealing the importance of prioritizing local evidence in program implementation since they are most effective in mitigating conflict and preventing violence. Locally inspired interventions have the best chances of countering hate speech, misinformation, disinformation, and social media weaponization. For example, the Peacemaker Corps Foundation Kenya (PCFK) and the Center for Media, Democracy, Peace and Security-Rongo University (CMDPS-RU) launched a project called Maskani (or Home in Swahili). This initiative uses university students as digital peacebuilders to address online political and ethnic polarization ahead of the country’s 2022 elections. This effort served as a locally inspired intervention credited to the relative calm among youths witnessed in Kisumu in the 2022 elections. Additionally, Maskani used digital peacebuilding strategies online and cultural peacebuilding strategies offline through the Karibu Kanaan Music and Art Festival for Peace (KKAMAFP).
Overall, these findings implied that the youth and politicians should be at the forefront of intervention geared toward addressing social media and electoral violence in digital peacebuilding.
 Fredrick Ogenga, “Mitigating Election Violence through Social Media Micro-Influencers: Baseline Report,”Center for Media Democracy, Peace, and Security, Rongo University, June 24, 2022. http://repository.rongovarsity.ac.ke/handle/123456789/2417.
 This refers to a pan-African sensitive approach that appreciates local voices and local evidence in evidence mapping.
 There is ample evidence demonstrating that social media plays a double-edged sword in conflict and peacebuilding, especially around elections. See Lisa, S. 2021. The Techtonic Shift- Social Media Impacts on Conflicts and Democracy, London, New York. Routledge.
 See Mc Ginity, R. 2013. The Local Turn in Peacebuilding: A Critical Agenda for Peace. Third World Quarterly. Pp 763-783.
 Fredrick Ogenga, Social Media, Ethnicity and Peacebuilding in Kenya in The Techtonic Shift- Social Media Impacts on Conflicts and Democracy. London, New York. Routledge, 2021, Routledge, pp 131-140.
Fredrick Ogenga is an Associate Professor of Media and Security Studies at Rongo University and the Founding Director of Rongo University’s Center for Media, Democracy, Peace, and Security. He is also The President and CEO of the Peacemakers Corps Foundation Kenya. Ogenga is a 2014 Africa Peacebuilding Network Grantee and 2016 Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar, (SVNP) at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. He is also a Letsema Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Pan-Africa Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg, Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Global African Affairs University of Johannesburg and West Indies and Academic Co-chair, East Africa Hub Joint Learning Initiative (JLI).
Photo Credit: National flag of Kenya on the keyboard on a grey background by esfera/Shuterstock.com
The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center’s Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States
About the Author
Associate Professor of Media and Security Studies, Rongo University and Founding Director, Center for Media, Democracy, Peace & Security (CMDPS).
The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations. Read more