Until about 2014, Kenya Twitter used to be easily the loudest and liveliest in Africa. Kenyans on Twitters (#KOT) were like squiddies, those frightening multi-tentacled metal creatures in The Matrix films.
They would set upon foreign “forces of darkness” with a vengeance whenever they offended Kenyan sensibilities, and often the wounded enemy had no option but to retreat.
When it comes to sheer anger and fury, South African Twitter today probably takes the continental gold medal. Kenyan Twitter has shifted in several ways that shine the light on the wider changes in political formation in the Kenya.
Today, one of the biggest topics is one you couldn’t have wagered on just five years ago – Kenya’s debt. #KOT gets very worked up about the spectre of Kenya overburdened by debt and in hock to the Chinese. That partly reflect the success of people like economist David Ndii in breaking down the debt question “for Wanjiku”.
Partly, though, it reflects a higher-mindedness among sections of #KOT. But these two trends are probably about only about 35 per cent. The rest is still a snake pit, but that 35 per cent is still a good story.
There has been a very sharp drop in delightful and tongue-in-cheek hashtags, the one thing people not just in Kenya, but other parts of the world used to look to. Some of the reasons for that Kenya Twitter is one of the best examples you will find in how successfully organised social, economic, and political groups have mobilised and seized control of the loyalties of social media users.
The rise of wealthy pastors and prophets, for example, led to an equal emergent in strident attacks on perceived religious quacks, conmen and women in godly robes, and other peddlers of miracles.
Then the pastors struck back, turning their flock into radical digital armies waging war against infidels. Additionally, to promote their crusades.
There were long periods when the trending topics were nothing else but the vilification of prophets or their critics.
But the religious feuds are nowhere near as constant or sharp-edged, as the organised tweeting around the 2022, pitting the camp sympathetic to Deputy President William Ruto, and those who think he’s not a worthy successor to President Uhuru Kenyatta.
If a hashtag putting down Ruto trends today, tomorrow one speaking to his virtues will trend. The lieutenants of the two sides will also trend, depending on when they are caught with their trousers or skirts down; their fingers in a cookie jar; or with money meant for a dam bulging in their pockets.
All this offers valuable insight into just how much of the political energy, resources, and analogue-world organisational architecture in Kenya has been ported to social media, and the admirable success of the old forces in the digital realm.
It has been a boon for tweeps willing to monetise their handles (why not?), but it has also already considerably crowded out a lot of the spontaneous and cheeky fare that makes social media enjoyable.
Another of the unpleasant results is that women seem to have been exiled from Kenyan Twitter. There was a time when women, several in media, were some of the leading lights of Kenyan Twitter.
Virtually all but a few hardy ones have been chased by a mix of rabid misogynic rage and a backlash against “socialites” and “slay queens”, and they have now found safety in places like Instagram, where there are fewer machete-wielding men. When they come on, they post gingerly, and usually around things like the New York Times’ controversial choice of photographs of the victims of the 14 Riverside attack. There, it is war, and all are welcome; all they need is to wear a Kenyan badge.
Clearly a lot of the fun, and clever material has now migrated to WhatsApp.
But probably the most dramatic revelation is how much of the power on Kenya Twitter has moved from the keyboards of the digital masses, into the hands of organised political forces, prosperity gospel merchants, and all sorts of money interests.
Ironically, the situation has been made worse by the decision of President Kenyatta to delete all social media handles in his name.
Like or hate him, his pages offered a channel to vent against, or support, something bigger – the state presidency.
The author is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3