In the first iteration of our three part series of #InternetPizzaFriday ‘s at the iHub, the Research team tackled the question: “Is technology neutral?” What comes next is a natural progression of this analysis, where we try to understand what it means to be neutral. According to Merriam-Webster neutral basically means not being engaged on either side; not aligned with a political or ideological grouping; a neutral nation.
So with this understanding then, is technology really neutral?
Technology as it exists bears:
- the intention of it’s creator
- the possibilities and limits of its design; and
- the foreseen and unforeseen results of its implementation
Bearing this in mind, technology being neutral is an aspiration, and not a current reality, and this can be showcased with a couple examples in the Kenyan context:
Kenya is no stranger to the net neutrality discussion. Airtel Africa in 2015, partnered with Facebook to launch Free Basics Services in 17 African countries, among them Kenya. As part of the Free Basics services, customers with an airtel mobile connection would be able to access all the services that form part of Free Basics, without paying extra for data charges or rental. Facebook were very keen on putting at the forefront the message, that Free Basics would aid in bringing more people online and reduce the digital divide, and that access to the internet is a basic internet right, which we would be hard pressed to argue with such noble convictions and goals.
However, a closer look at the Free Basics program, reveals that it offers access to some sites and not others, while being able to read all data passing through the platform. Wouldn’t this then pose concerns surrounding user free will and security, which should ideally be front and centre of principles surrounding technology?
At the same time, it is important to note, the difficult position we are in when we argue against free access to the internet, when 3.9 billion are still unconnected. Access to the internet, IS a human right. However, we need to objectively consider the risk of such programs being susceptible to manipulation and control. Furthermore, the problematic nature of providing partial access, masked as full access, should make us all question the motives of such initiatives. In retrospect Facebook’s recent and not so recent troubles, should propel us towards being more analytical of the Free Basics offering and the importance of users’ free will.
Unlike in India, Kenya has not experienced much resistance of the Free Basics program, and this makes you wonder how governments lack of infrastructure development influenced this turn of events, making it convenient in the face of lack of alternatives or government intervention.
During the 2017 elections, it was revealed that Kenyans’ data was mined to help win a heavily contested election, with the help of Cambridge Analytica. Kenyan voters were psychologically manipulated, by the use of apocalyptic ads and smear campaigns against the opposition candidate, painting him as violent, corrupt and dangerous1. Unfortunately, Kenya with its weak privacy laws and lack of implementation are a fertile ground for organisations such as Cambridge Analytica to run their unethical programs.
As more and more Kenyans connect to the internet, the internet has subsequently become a dangerous place with women facing the biggest brunt of cyberbullying, revenge porn, doxxing and stalking. Due to the patriarchal nature of the Kenyan society, women face an inordinate amount of online harassment, when you compare it to their male counterparts. Furthermore, majority of these online platforms have challenges addressing harassment on them (as a result of substandard and biased reporting functions), thus propagating these inequalities.
In a technological aspect, you may ask yourself how we end up with such flawed online platforms, and we can see an example here of how Facebook has been engineered to be biased against black children and to protect white men. Remember as we earlier stated, more often than not, “technology bears the intention of its creator”. This introduces the concept of privilege and power differentials in the neutrality discussion. By definition, privilege is an unearned advantage given because a person is born into a certain group in society. Privilege in society then takes different forms, through our gender and gender identity, education levels, class (social and economic status), sexuality, race, skin tone, body size, religion, mental and physical ability, debt, employment status and many others.
By being conscious about our privilege and subsequent bias, then we can proactively work towards eliminating it in our everyday lives and especially in technology.
As the event wound up, my parting shot was pointing out the importance of challenging cultural perceptions and bias, and re-imagining new ways of thinking and doing things in the age of technology; while being cognizant of power differentials. Only then can we truly make substantial steps towards making technology neutral.
The Social Media and Social Order International Conference is a conference that brought together researchers from different countries investigating different phenomena on social media and I was fortunate to represent the iHub and present our preliminary, soon to be published, findings for our project on Enhancing Internet Freedom in Kenya.
In many ways being my first conference with an almost 99% Academia profile of attendees, it gave me a unique opportunity to ask new questions and examine behaviour, basically to think! Which such environments aren’t so common as Wambui Wamunyu our past iHub Research Fellow pointed out here.
After close to 9 months of studying social media behaviour in Kenya and participating in it as an avid social media user myself, I do believe there is a distinct gendered ordering of social media in Kenya. Let me explain…
Something interesting is happening on social media in Kenya, whose narrative is mainly being controlled by the youth, a subset of Kenya’s men and women between the ages of 18 and 35.
Young people are taking to social media to discuss with exponentially much larger audiences than most would have in their offline channels, not only about everyday happenings but even those that most in our society would deem taboo based on traditional and cultural precepts imposed on us by society.
With only 20% of women in slums connected to the internet versus 57% of men and women saying prices of data are ‘unrealistic’ it is clear we need to to put in place smarter initiatives to get more women online in order to achieve gender equality.
Kenyan culture which is admittedly predominantly patriarchal, has not spared the internet which has adopted these norms, to make it a belief that men not only have priority over women when it comes to accessing the internet but also it is their responsibility to restrict womens’ access on the internet supposedly to protect them from western ideals and beliefs. These are findings from the World Wide Web Foundation regarding Women’s Rights Online, specifically the patriarchal attitudes towards the internet where it not only affected access but also women’s speech online, frequency of online activity and even reduced priority when it comes to benefiting from technology in households.
My hypothesis: The Internet makes gendered harassment more participatory in Kenya as a result of these factors relating to culture and access.
How can we achieve a safer and more friendly internet for women if we are not making it easier for women to participate online and instigating a shift in mindset that reimagines the role of women in society and the economy?
In the public sphere, there has been considerable effort to feed, educate and improve the living conditions of the ‘girl child’ which is only fair because the system has been rigged against girls in Kenya to have a tougher go at life; it is no surprise that men now view this as a threat to their position in society and subsequently coined the term ‘boy child’ as a rebuttal. Yet, we still see more men than women having access to education, the Internet and generally a better livelihood making these concerns of the ‘boy child’ not only irrational but incredibly inequitable.
Recently, we can finally boast at having girls topping examinations like KCSE, KCPE (without critiquing the obvious gaps existing in our education system and its priority over exams) the mere fact that these are ‘big news’ items should alone be a sign of a glaring flaw in society. Additionally, you would expect that together women AND men would be celebratory rather than the ‘What about the boy child?’ What is happening with the boy child?’ responses that we saw all over the country.
Social media is now a haven where the ‘boy child’ clearly a majority proven by statistics, now dominate to pontificate and harass because it’s no longer as accepted in the public sphere to reassert dominance.
With more than one in five women in Kenya experiencing online harassment, social media has become a toxic space that women have to persevere in addition to offline spaces, it is evident offline and online spaces are intertwined in this way.
However, the good news is this is not the way this cookie crumbles…
An interesting learning from this conference was the use of computational methods to collect and analyse data for qualitative researchers. Using this my next challenge, will be to visualise the engagement of Kenyans on Twitter clearly illustrating each demographic. Stay tuned for this and our report launch soon!
Welcome to tnwandia.com where I will regularly update my thoughts and work as I explore the tech industry and pursue my interests in Research, ICT, Women, Policy, Governance and Internet.