Arresting Tweeters Can’t Stop Terrorism – First published in The Star, 20th Jan, 2016

Blogger Robert Alai, though controversial and sometimes considered a thorn in the flesh of the regime, has moments of such vivid clarity that one cannot help but appreciate his boldness in stating the truth.

On Monday @RobertAlai tweeted: “Part of modern warfare involves information. How will KDF win against Al-Shabaab when the terror group is so much ahead with propaganda? We just need to be ahead of Al-Shabaab. Now Al-Shabaab is sharing pics of dead Kenyans and winning the propaganda war.”

Indeed, how can we win a war against terror ideologies if we, as a nation, have no countering, unifying ideology? Al Shabaab, only hours after Friday’s devastating attack on KDF’s camp in El-Adde, Somalia, had not only released statements claiming responsibility, they also released images they claimed were of dead Kenyan soldiers. Very quickly, and without considering their impact, Kenyans shared the horrendous pictures.

The truth is, just like their hateful and divisive terror ideology, the images were a blatant lie. They were from 2011, of Burundian soldiers killed in an attack and their bodies displayed. Like everything else on social media, the truth about our soldiers and their fate in Somalia has been distorted, their memories forever disparaged and their valiant lives reduced to memes that Kenyans themselves caused to trend.

The reaction by Interior CS Joseph Nkaissery was typical. He at once declared that any person caught sharing images of dead soldiers would be arrested and prosecuted. But which laws wouldhe use to arrest and prosecute Kenyans for retweeting or reposting unverified images?

Arresting people for retweets has become a thing in Kenya. KBC journalist Judith Akolo was arrested and interrogated for retweeting a post by @ModernCorps, an account run by Patrick Safari, in which he questioned the Police Service recruiting process after an advert appeared in the papers. Veteran Nakuru journalist Elijah Kinyanjui Maina was arrested for reposting images assumed to be the daughter of Governor Kinuthia Mbugua. Some weeks prior to that, bloggerCyprian Nyakundi was also arrested for retweeting a post by a different Twitter account.

Arresting people for retweeting or sharing posts or images on social media is weakness. It is intellectually lazy and certainly not a counterterrorism measure. Even though the Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014 had clauses that outlawed the sharing of images deemed detrimental to national security, these remain contested at the High Court and are considered unconstitutional, vague and subject to abuse.

Shouldn’t the authorities be expending their resources on targeting and identifying the origins of the posts, the accounts themselves and bringing an end to the sort of influence al Shabaab has over the Kenyan online community?

This is an ideological war as much as it is a military engagement. Ideas are not fought with bullets, they are fought by acknowledging their existence and robustly destroying the fallacious arguments posited. To expect, then, that this government is capable, by itself, to foster the intellect required to derive a national ideology strong enough to permeate the Kenyan psyche is intellectually lazy as well.

We surely have no shortage of academics, artists, writers, and political elite, I dare say there should be enough mental acuity among our bourgeoisie to power an intellectual society if we so choose. The fact is, our elite instead choose to engage in endless and childish tribal barrage in the name of politicking, something that ultimately fragments society and leaves us exposed – a willing and fertile ground for divisive terror-driven narratives.

It is this psychological state of ethnic fragmentation, so carefully cultivated by politics, that is powering irrational decisions, such as sharing images of bodies, be they soldiers, students or victims of terror. We have become anaesthetised to our own pain. So much so that some opposition politicians even used the great national tragedy of losing so many soldiers to score political points, in tandem with their custom of making political speeches at funerals.

Kenya is a country at war against a threat so incredible that Inspector General Joseph Boinnet put it best: “It is an existential threat against the Kenyan society.” That threat manifests itself not just in bombs and bullets but it also reaches into the dark recesses of Kenyans’ hearts and minds and fosters terror in the one place you cannot escape, your own psychology. Yet we can, as a nation, counter this threat consciously and actively, even if we may not politically align ourselves with the regime.

In Belgium, during a spate of terror raids, an official request for citizens to avoid tweeting anything that could inform terrorists of what was going on resulted in the citizens taking it upon themselves to post pictures of pets rather than retweet terror threats or images. This is the sort of unity in spirit and mind that Kenya can also achieve, and this sort of unity can only be inculcated, not threatened, into existence.

You cannot arrest people for their psychology. You cannot put into chains what people think, you can only encourage a change in their thinking. It will take more than threats to fight an ideology of terror. It will take a conscious effort by citizens to put aside their minuscule ethnic prejudices and the backward politics that results from that, and forge a new national and inclusive ideology, one that can win over the hearts and minds of each citizen. That is how we can prevent the influence of terrorists over our social media spaces.

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