Young People, Social Media, and Political Participation. The Limits of Discursive (In)Civility in the Kenyan Context

  • Martin N. NdlelaEmail author


The growing availability of low-cost smartphone devices and the affordable rates of data connectivity mean that more and more young people in Africa have access to mobile telephones. With these visible changes, there is an optimistic view that social media will play a central role in addressing a range of social issues by liberating, empowering, and enabling participation and engagement in political issues. However, the influence of social media on political engagement is determined by the discursive opportunity structures afforded by the context. This chapter examines the young people’s participation in the political digital public sphere in the Kenyan context. It argues that the political and cultural opportunity structures in Kenya create their own set of unequal participatory mechanisms that perpetuate a digital divide.


Social media Informal social control Digital public sphere Political participation Digital divide Discursive civility 


  1. Albrecht, S. (2006). Whose voice is heard in online deliberation?: A study of participation and representation in political debates on the internet. Information, Communication & Society, 9(1), 62–82. Scholar
  2. Amichai-Hamburger, Y., Gazit, T., Bar-Ilan, J., Perez, O., Aharony, N., Bronstein, J., et al. (2016). Psychological factors behind the lack of participation in online discussions. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 268–277. Scholar
  3. Benesch, S. (2014). Countering dangerous speech to prevent mass violence during Kenya’s 2013 elections. Retrieved from
  4. Benson, T. (2011). The rhetoric of civility: Power, authenticity, and democracy. Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric, 1(1), 22–30.Google Scholar
  5. Brady, H. E. (1997). Political participation. In R. B. Rubin, P. Palmgreen, & H. E. Sypher (Eds.), Communication research measures. London: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  6. Brokensha, S. I., & Conradie, M. S. (2017). (In)civility and online deliberation: readers’ reactions to race-related news stories. Safundi. The Journal of South African and American Studies, 18(4), 327–348.Google Scholar
  7. Carpentier, N. (2011). Media and Participation. A site of ideological-democratic struggle. Bristol: Intellect.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Castells, M. (1996). The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  9. Chambers, S. (2003). Deliberative democratic theory. Annual Review of Political Science, 6(1), 307–326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Coe, K., Kenski, K., & Rains, S. A. (2014). Online and uncivil? Patterns and determinants of incivility in newspaper website comments. Journal of Communication, 64, 658–679.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. van Deursen, A., & van Dijk, J. (2010). Internet skills and the digital divide. New Media & Society, 13(6), 893–911.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. van Dijk, J. (2006). Digital divide research, achievements and shortcomings. Poetics, 34(4-5), 221–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dumova, T. (2009). Handbook of research on social interaction technologies and collaboration software: Concepts and trends. Information Science Reference.Google Scholar
  14. Ferree, M., Gamson, W., Gerhards, J., & Rucht, D. (2002). Four models of the public sphere in modern democracies. Theory and Society, 31(3), 289–324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Habermas, J. (1989a). The theory of communicative action (Vol. 2). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  16. Habermas, J. (1989b). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  17. Hampton, K. N., Shin, I., & Lu, W. (2017). Social media and political discussion: When online presence silences offline conversation. Information, Communication & Society, 20(7), 1090–1107. Scholar
  18. Hoffmann, C. P., Aeschlimann, L., & Lutz, C. (2014). A digital divide in political participation: Exploring antecedents and effects of online political participation. Paper presented at the 64th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, Seattle.
  19. Jenkins, H., Purushotma, K., Clinton, M., Weigel, M., & Robinson, A. J. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Chicago: Mac-Arthur Foundation. Retrieved from Scholar
  20. Jones, Q., Ravid, G., & Rafaeli, S. (2004). Information overload and the message dynamics of online interaction spaces: A theoretical model and empirical exploration. Information Systems Research, 15(2), 194–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kelshaw, T., & Lemesianou, C. A. (2010). Emerging online democracy: The dynamics of formal and digitally mediated social structures. In T. Dumova & R. Fiordo (Eds.), Handbook of research on social interaction technologies and collaboration software: Concepts and trends (pp. 404–416). Hershey, PA: IGI-Global.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kelty, C., Panofsky, A., Currie, M., Crooks, R., Erickson, S., Garcia, P., et al. (2015). Seven dimensions of contemporary participation disentangled. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 66(3), 474–488. Scholar
  23. Kenski, K., Jamieson, K. H., Jamieson, K. H., Volinsky, A., Weitz, I., & Kenski, K. (2018). The political uses and abuses of civility and incivility. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Mäkinen, M., & Wangu Kuira, M. (2008). Social media and postelection crisis in Kenya. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 13(3), 328–335. Scholar
  25. Motion, J., Heath, R. L., & Leitch, S. (2015). Social media and public relations. Fake friends and powerful publics. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Nielsen, R. K., & Schrøder, K. C. (2014). The relative importance of social media for accessing, finding, and engaging with news. Digital Journalism, 2(4), 472–489. Scholar
  27. Ogola, G. (2015). Social media as a heteroglossic discursive space and Kenya’s emergent alternative/citizen experiment. African Journalism Studies, 36(4), 66–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Papacharissi, Z. (2004). Democracy online: civility, politeness, and the democratic potential of online political discussion groups. New Media & Society, 6(2), 259–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Perez, O. (2013). Open government, technological innovation, and the politics of democratic disillusionment: (E-) democracy from Socrates to Obama. Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society, 9(1), 63–137.Google Scholar
  30. Smith, G., Sturgies, P., & Nomura, H. (2009). Deliberation and Internet engagement: Initial findings from a randomised controlled trial evaluating the impact of facilitated internet forums. Paper presented at the European Consortium of Political Research General Conference, Potsdam.Google Scholar
  31. Sobieraj, S., & Berry, J. (2011). From incivility to outrage: Political discourse in blogs, talk radio, and cable news. Political Communication, 28(1), 19–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Somerville, K. (2011). Violence, hate speech and inflammatory broadcasting in Kenya: The problems of definition and identification. Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 32(1), 82–101. Scholar
  33. Swart, J., Peters, C., & Broersma, M. (2018). Sharing and discussing news in private social media groups. Digital Journalism, 1–19.
  34. Verba, S., & Nie, N. H. (1987). Participation in America. Political democracy and social equality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  35. Vrooman, S. (2002). The art of invective performing identity in cyberspace. New Media & Society, 4(1), 51–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Wellman, B., Quan-Haase, A., Witte, J., & Hampton, K. (2001). Does the internet increase, decrease or supplement social capital? Social networks, participation, and community commitment. American Behavioral Scientist, 45(3), 436–455.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Inland Norway University of Applied SciencesElverumNorway
  2. 2.Department of Strategic CommunicationUniversity of JohannesburgAuckland ParkSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations