Initially, I wanted to have this titled , “Digital Rights during the COVID-19 Pandemic” but over the months during which I procrastinated writing it, I realised not only could I not write it, but I didn’t want to. That article had to die a sudden death in the brainstorming stage, because it wouldn’t be honest. Nobody prepares you for the lack of creative drive that a pandemic wroughts within you; and I was dealing with more than the pandemic itself. I greatly empathise with anyone who has felt coerced by their circumstances and probably capitalism, to continue churning out content during this time in order to keep the lights on.
This article is going to be about all the thoughts that have been running through my mind in the last couple of months. Quite an unusual piece for my blog, but unprecedented times call for a break in the matrix. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the old way is no longer sustainable. Organisations and individuals have been pushed to consider new ways to pull through in these times, and since introspection is a thing I value, I believe strongly that there’s a place for introspection, to figure out how we got here and what our collective futures look like.
I had been struggling for months, so I quit my job some time in February. By the end of March (before we better understood what havoc COVID-19 was about to wreak), I had served my notice. That process was both heartbreaking and was one of the top three (and not number three) lessons I’ve learned in my life, but there’s just something about a new beginning that is exciting. During those first few months, it seemed certain I would specifically want to continue my work in digital rights. I was keen on getting back to the humdrum of my previous life. Most probably because it felt not only safe, but incomplete. I felt that I wasn’t done contributing to the digital rights community (I still lend my time a few months in a year to work on a certain digital rights publication and I hope to continue doing so), so I’m still enthusiastically well immersed in the space. However, what better time than a pandemic to reimagine futures?
A dear friend of mine has reimagined what accessing content online will look like in these times and post COVID-19 with JijiBUZZ. JijiBuzz is a Kenyan platform inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic that aims to connect people and communities through social media. They provide crowdsourced information about live streaming events taking place online daily and information on how to help combat Covid-19 while social distancing.
I remind myself that we can both walk and chew gum (thank you Muthoni Maingi for the apt phrase), whenever I think about how the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly locked so many more people out of the online space, while still appreciating how the new ways we develop will rely more than ever on digital technologies.
Right before my last assignment came to an end, I was part of a team that conducted a digital rights workshop for the elderly (ages 50 to 75). This experience was both incredibly frustrating and unlike other training sessions I’ve conducted. I wasn’t satisfied when I left them, stay tuned for a subsequent post about that experience. This must be why I feel like I haven’t completed my contract with the digital rights realm, because deep down my philosophy that we should all be digital rights advocates, may very well always be a fundamental part of me. Additionally, quite frankly I still have much more I need to say and do, and I hope to continue to write about it, right here.
Just like many other things COVID-19 has disrupted, education has been upended in ways that nobody would have expected. Children and parents across the world are now grappling with virtual classes, since schools have been closed indefinitely and formal education systems have officially moved online. We are yet to fully realise, at what cost. Is anyone asking this question? How about parents and children who are not able to access online platforms? Internet access is still not universal and Kenyans are still inundated with access issues such as cost, infrastructure (special shout out to electricity), quality of service, literacy and devices. The work that digital rights defenders do, has become urgent and important in this new world as inequalities suddenly become even more stark. Education is an opportunity to break cycles of poverty that encumber so many of our youth, but it has been stopped suddenly and indefinitely for 24.6% of learners according to Kenya National Bureau of Standards. With only 12.2% who have been able to access online learning. What are the new ways we are re-imagining education to make it accessible for all, while taking safety measures in light of COVID-19?
Future of Work
As children struggle with this new way of learning, parents too have had to quickly respond to a change in circumstances. Without notice, they now have to take a more active role in their children’s education and minding now that schools are closed and a significant number have transitioned to remote working. I came across a Twitter poll some time back that asked what type of person employees preferred to report to: whether: partnered, partnered with children, single or single with children. This resulted in a number of interesting DM conversations about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected workplace dynamics. These conversations ranged from privileges in the workplace, to productivity levels and who is picking up the slack during these unprecedented times. Will we see a renewed cycle of hiring bias depending on personal profiles especially as it relates to being a parent and/or being partnered?
A few people I spoke to confirmed my hypothesis that yes being a parent is an actual privilege because it’s viewed as a more ‘acceptable’ reason for you to be away from work, unlike say if you had a mental health emergency that pulled you away from work. I realise now, that these thoughts deserve a space of their own in a forthcoming post, stay tuned.
It is certain that almost everyone’s productivity has somehow been compromised during these times. A good example is when we take a look at the creative industry. HEVA Fund ran an interesting survey that studied the impact of COVID-19 on the sector’s business activities and incomes and here are the results.
This makes me wonder how those who are employed are faring. How are employers responding to COVID-19? Does your employer do regular mental check ins or have they provided this facility to employees? Has your employer created flexible hours? Has there been a dialogue to revise how your organisation operates? Have you been involved in this process? Human behaviour has always interested me, probably why social research remains near and dear to me, so these are questions that run through my mind. These are important questions that I would love to delve into and seek evidence based solutions to.
Now that we are here, how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work(ing) environment?
Politics of Control
COVID-19 has destabilized our impression of control. It has been made incredibly evident that we do not have even an iota of control over things we thought we did. It’s difficult to control a person. Governments have implemented rules, curfews and lockdowns in a bid to control people and not the virus. See, these two things are different. Mechanisms to control people involve violence and ruling with an iron fist without room for dialogue. These methods lack empathy, these methods prevent seeing people and acknowledging their suffering and human dignity. Human dignity cannot be preserved if people go hungry, if people are not physically safe, if people do not have homes to go to and certainly, a virus will not be defeated if human dignity is not upheld. We cannot lose sight of the fact that, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc because it continues to remain inextricable from the human body while we continue to fight people, and not the virus.
Some Governments have found renewed energy for the case of employing surveillance technology and I find myself at a crossroads, with more questions than answers. Fundamentally, I believe the lack of uninformed consent forever taints any form of data collection from a citizenry. Knowing what we know about COVID-19 will we need to be more open about sharing data with our governments? How can we make this a more informed process? How can we make governments more accountable with this data? How can we ensure governments are capable of securing and safeguarding citizen interests in this new world of less friction in data sharing?
Now that we are spending more time in our homes, it remains evident that women face the inordinate brunt of violence in society, with cases of domestic violence being on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone who still refuses to see this or justifies it in any shape or form, is truly part of the problem. We have been saying violence is not only meted against women by strangers, but most especially by intimate partners and people who are well known to them. People who are violent towards women are not ‘unique monsters’ in society, they are regular people walking on our streets, sitting in boardrooms and could even be religious leaders. Violence is a political problem and this is why we see it spill over onto online spaces. During these past ‘pandemic months’ cyber security issues such as online harassment, non-consensual dissemination of intimate images and hacking have been on the rise. (insert citation)
We have created an environment rife with COVID-19 stigma where we are more concerned about making a livelihood than flattening the curve because truthfully, we need to eat, keep the lights on and economically survive this global health crisis. Many governments
cannot will not step in. What this effectively does is build a culture of individuality. The result: people lying about their travel history, people lying about their symptoms and in a particularly morbid twist of events, people protesting for their right not to wear masks in public and their right to break social distancing recommendations. A toxic cocktail, whose main ingredients are: the complex systems of discrimination such as racism, oligarchy, capitalism, poverty, ignorance and god knows what else that has been broken out of Pandora’s box. In summary, it’s a big ol’ mess.
Values, Ethos, Philosophy…
Oh capitalism, how you make us ache and suffer.
I have a friend who bashes capitalism at every turn, and rightly so. I mean look around us right now. It has been exposed, knickers showing! It’s not often that you see organisations whose ethos include dismantling capitalism, but any time I come across them, I have hope.
I’ve not only been thinking about the ills of capitalism and oligarchy during these months. With all this time on my hands, I’ve also taken the time to delve into the values I hold dear when it comes to relationships, one thing has stood out. It’s easy to build relationships based on things we have in common, in fact it may be the norm, but when push comes to shove do we have similar values? Are we going in the same direction? I plan to be more intentional about building relationships with people who have similar values to me in this new world. I need less friction and more purpose. I refuse to coast along in despair as a result of the ills that are rife in this world. Maybe that is why I recently took a closer ‘look’ at the Ukweli Party. I attended one of their cafes recently and honestly I was provoked by what Nduko O’matigere, their secretary general had to say. Amongst many thought provoking statements, one that stood out was that 2022 is too far to have elections and that #UhuruMustGo! I still haven’t made my submission, but this registration page remains open as one of my numerous tabs. I’m tired of pointing out the ways this country fails us and not doing anything about it, maybe this is a first step, just maybe.
Flattening the curve will need a revamp in our value systems, not only in our operations. The question is, are we courageous enough to take on this task that we have been met with?
To close this incredibly long post, I fell sick recently. No, not COVID-19. Given the times, this has now become a disclaimer we must provide but also a thing we worry about. We wonder, that sore throat, that tightness in our chest, that cough, could this be the dreaded COVID-19? It gets more complicated when you realise health insurance is tied in with employment, at least most times; and that during this period a huge number of the employed population have been sent home on unpaid leave and their contracts terminated. Falling sick meant I had to reschedule a meeting that had been in the books for over a month. I felt guilty that my body failed me at this particular time and I was anxious about sending that message in case there would be backlash, especially because it was so last minute and unexpected just the way COVID-19 sneaked up on us. The person on the other end was incredibly gracious and hoped I was doing ok and proceeded to provide alternative dates for our meeting. Surprisingly, the world did not end as my mind had led me to believe it would. This act of kindness, reinvigorated me as I continue to mend and inspired me somewhat, to put all these thoughts together. How are you showing grace and employing empathy during these times?
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.