Twitter and elections in Kenya: not yet a game changer

Kim Yi Dionne, University of California, Riverside and Jennifer De Maio, California State University, Northridge




Kenyans will head to the polls in August this year for what is expected to be a hotly contested presidential election. Opposition leader Raila Odinga is running for the fifth time, but on this occasion with the support of his former rival, President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is ineligible to stand again. Significantly, Kenyatta has overlooked his deputy, William Ruto.

Ruto and Odinga will be the candidates to watch in the 2022 presidential elections. But there will also be hundreds of politicians campaigning for positions in Kenya’s parliament and in local government. In addition to drawing on patronage networks and holding mass campaign events, Kenyan politicians will use social media to broadcast their policy messages, rally support and position themselves against their opponents.

Social media’s role in politics and elections has grown significantly in the last decade. The most obvious examples are negative, like Russian Twitter propaganda during the 2016 US elections. There were also misinformation campaigns via WhatsApp in Brazil’s 2018 presidential election, and the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal.

Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are –- as Kenyan writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola writes –- reframing democracy and the way citizens engage and organise in digital space. Through these platforms, politicians can engage directly with voters, which is especially important for independent candidates, who may not have the backing of a major party.

But how do politicians use digital media? To answer that question, we looked to Twitter, which is popular in Kenya. The platform allows users to broadcast messages of up to 280 characters.

In our research, we analysed 15,691 tweets by 86 Kenyan politicians during the 2017 elections. We evaluated the extent to which Twitter can “democratise” political communication by disrupting the hold that political parties have on the electoral market.

We found that social media has the potential to allow for more direct communication between politicians and citizens. But our analysis of candidates’ tweets in the 2017 election does not suggest that Twitter democratised political discourse and politics in Kenya. While we expect candidates in the upcoming election to continue to expand their reach and visibility through social media, Twitter may not yet replace patronage networks and traditional campaigning.


Candidates who used Twitter

Our analysis of the 2017 tweets sought to answer three questions:

  • Which candidates use Twitter?

  • What do candidates say on Twitter?

  • Do candidates use Twitter to engage with potential voters, or just to broadcast at them?

Here’s what we learned.

Not all candidates who ran for office in Kenya in 2017 had Twitter accounts. Only 147 (45%) of the 327 candidates running for president, governor, senator, or women representative had Twitter profiles.

We found greater use of Twitter among aspirants for higher offices. Seven of the eight candidates running for president in 2017 had Twitter accounts, while only 28% of senate candidates did.

Ruling Jubilee party candidates and male candidates were more likely to have Twitter accounts.

Even among those Kenyan candidates who had Twitter accounts, not all posted to Twitter during their campaign. We found only 26% of the official candidates running for president, governor, senator, or women representative tweeted during the campaign period.


What politicians said

Like most tweets (page 89), the majority of the tweets posted by the candidates in our study were in English. Some were in Kiswahili, and some were in a mixture of these two languages.

The politicians often mentioned their county in tweets. The word “county” was the most frequent term in the thousands of tweets in our dataset.

Examples of tweets by candidates in dataset that included the word county.

For example, Lenny Kivuti, an opposition party candidate for governor in Embu County, posted multiple tweets during his 2017 campaign about various local influencers he met. This includes the tweet above about meeting the county bodaboda chairmen, as well as tweets about meeting local taxi owners and drivers and even Nairobi-based professionals originally from Embu County.


Engaging or broadcasting

Our data show whether candidates used Twitter to broadcast messages or interact with potential voters. Candidates can use Twitter to broadcast their values or strengths to potential voters. For example, former Nairobi governor Evans Kidero (who ran unsuccessfully for reelection in 2017) tweeted:

We invest in our children’s future because education validates their dreams. #KideroNaElimu #KideroMueke-5Tena.

This tweet elicited 25 replies, but Kidero replied to none of them.

Looking at our data capturing Twitter replies, we saw Kenya’s ruling party candidates rarely “engaged” with other users. Independent candidates were much more engaged and interactive with others on Twitter.

Joseph Nyagah was an independent presidential candidate who tried to appeal to a diverse audience and actively engaged in conversations with everyday Twitter users. His many replies to Twitter users – totalling 394 across the 62 days of our study – suggest it may be interesting and important for researchers to study more closely how independent candidates use Twitter less as a broadcasting platform and more as an avenue to engage with citizens.

The candidate in our dataset with the most replies (1,754) was also an independent: Miguna Miguna, an unsuccessful candidate for governor of Nairobi.

Without major party backing, photojournalist and activist Boniface Mwangi campaigned as an independent MP candidate for Starehe constituency in Nairobi. He raised significant funds and organised youth to register to vote via Twitter.

We did not examine election outcome data alongside our Twitter data to see if there was a correlation between candidates’ engagement and electoral success.


Old and new resources

Traditional campaigns, major party support, and ethnic dynamics and inequality remain strong influences in contemporary Kenyan politics. Add to that the increasing role of county-level competition in shaping national-level politics.

Twitter will be part of many Kenyan candidates’ campaign activities ahead of the August 2022 elections. It is not yet clear that it will truly level the political playing field between independent candidates and candidates backed by political parties with significant resources. But the surge of independent candidates and their social media innovations suggest change is coming.


Kim Yi Dionne, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California, Riverside and Jennifer De Maio, Professor of Political Science, College of Behavioral Sciences, California State University, Northridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.