Many Kenyans use social media networks to discuss politics. Looking ahead to the upcoming elections, analysts warn that there are also risks attached.
Every evening after office hours, people in the Kenyan capital Nairobi gather on street corners to debate politics. They discuss and argue about which candidate to support and why.
What is happening on the streets of Nairobi reflects what is also taking place on the Internet.
More and more Kenyans now use social media such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter for political debates. Politicians have also joined the trend.
Through Facebook, some of them report almost hourly every move they make. Those who use Twitter as a means to enter into dialogue with citizens often find themselves the target of criticism.
Kenyan political scientist and activist Mwalimu Mati would like politicians to use social networks to tell people more about themselves and their plans. He sees social media as a way of creating greater equality among candidates as less well-off politicians also have a means of communicating with the electorate.
Rise in use of social networks
Although the number of people using the Internet in Kenya has risen tremendously in recent years, the impact of social networks can only be felt where electricity and Internet access is available, and that is in urban areas.
According to the Ministry of Information, Kenya has over 14 million Internet users. That is about 30 percent of the population. Only five percent were using the Internet five years ago..
Many users work with civil society organizations. They use the Internet mainly to spread information and to collect data. Analysts say this has very beneficial effects for democracy in practice.
Boniface Mwangi is a Kenyan activist who uses Facebook to organize demonstrations. He says this is all it is good for and that social media in general are pretty insignificant.
"It's a good place to just go and shout and make noise," Mwangi said. Asked by DW if he thought it was an effective tool, he said, "I really doubt it."
The real power lies offline, not in the Internet, Mwangi believes. Rather than just complaining via Twitter, Internet users should go out and demonstrate. "Get a poster, gather people and go to the street," Mwangi urges.
The contradiction between the real and the online world is illustrated by the following example.
Martha Karua is a presidential candidate and the first Kenyan politician to make extensive use of social media for campaigning.
Judging by the number of fans or followers she has, she has the best chance of winning the elections. But according to opinion polls, she is lagging behind.
Hate speech messages
If not used properly, social media networks can be dangerous, analysts warn, especially in a country like Kenya where ethnic factors play a large role in politics.
Although hate speech is now banned, examples can be found in some social media networks, similar to what could be heard on the radio five years ago.
Several government institutions, including the National Commission on Integration and Cohesion (NCIC) are monitoring compliance with the law. Mzalendo Kibunjia is the chairman of the NCIC.
He calls on politicians to choose their words carefully during their campaigns.
"Whatever way people campaign, they must be careful on how they campaign. Even what you say as an individual, forget about the politicians, you must say it in a very measured way," he said.
Just recently the government warned hate speech perpetrators on social media that they will be severely punished for making threatening or insulting statements.
Looking at the number of people who now use the Internet and social media in Kenya, these tools could be very useful during and after the March elections, for example by quickly reporting electoral fraud and violence.
"Ushahidi" (the Kiswahili word for testimony) is an Internet platform which was initially developed to track reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election riots in 2008.
Activists across the globe are now using Ushahidi to network. Within Kenya, it is hoped there will be no need to use the country's own invention during this year's elections.