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The social media lie: Huge following fails to translate to votes at the ballot box

Boniface Mwangi. He is like njahi – you either love him or hate him.

People who want politicians to be held to account love him, while the politicos themselves cannot stand him.

He has gained an almost religious following on social media ever since his plunge into activism in 2009, and this peaked when he announced his bid for Starehe MP during the launch of his book, ‘Unbounded’,in November last year.

People said they were ready to support a new breed of politicians like Boniface, whose focus was not on ‘It is my turn to eat’ but rather making a positive change.

But as Peter Kenneth and Martha Karua learned when they ran for President in 2013, followers and support on social media do not necessarily translate to votes.

Peter Kenneth fake euphoria

In 2013, Kenneth was popular on social media with hundreds of thousands of likes on his Facebook page, which was a significant number back then. He also had more than 60,000 Twitter followers – also a good number at the time.

He was the most active presidential candidate on social media and even raised funds for his campaign through the platform.

AskMartha Twitter drive

Karua also had a good share of followers on social media – more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and hundreds of thousands of likes on her Facebook page.

She dedicated a day of the week to engaging her supporters and started the “AskMartha” hashtag, where Twitter users could ask her questions about her agenda.

But when it came time to vote, Kenneth did not even garner one per cent of the votes cast. He had 72,786 votes, representing 0.6 per cent of the total votes cast. Karua garnered 43,881 votes, about 0.36 per cent.

Fast-forward to 2017, the same fate has befallen activist Boniface, as he lost to Jubilee candidate Charles Njagua, popularly known as Jaguar. Boniface has about 263,000 likes on his Facebook page and 727,000 followers on Twitter.

Bill Gates said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

In this case, we can change that quote to, “A strong social media following is deceitful. It seduces smart people into thinking they have genuine supporters.”

As if Boniface losing wasn’t badly enough, ODM candidate and flamboyant, live-life-with-a-big-spoon man Steve Mbogo beat him, too.

‘Make it rain’ Mbogo beats activist Boniface

Mbogo is seen as one of those ‘spoilt, rich showoffs’. He is known to throw lavish, all-white dress code parties, where expensive alcohol flows freely and attendees’ idea of fun is ‘making it rain’ – a colloquial term to describe someone throwing money in the air because it is probably in such high supply that they can throw it around.

So why would residents of Starehe constituency – which includes wards such as Kariokor, Huruma, Mathare and Ngara – who are mostly in the lower income bracket, vote for Mbogo, who may be unlikely to relate with their daily struggles?

Also, how is it that that Boniface, a man who seemed to have a strong backing – at least on social media – fell flat on his face?

Some pin it down to blind party loyalty among voters. Jaguar and Mbogo were riding on well-known parties (Jubilee Party and ODM), while Boniface ran on his relatively new Ukweli Party outfit.

Boniface used crowdfunding to raise cash for his campaign. He had a Sh10 million target and all he asked was for Kenyans to support his bid by contributing Sh10.

He raised Sh700,000 within three days of the launch of his campaign.

He depended on ordinary people to make his campaign a success. He asked for cash donations, for people to volunteer to go on the campaign trail with him, donations in kind – fuel, airtime, computers, phones and the like. He also asked people to share his manifesto and pictures of him on the road with friends on social media, and for people to be his agents in the 27 polling stations in Starehe constituency.

Kenyans seemed to have faith in Bonnie, as he is fondly referred to by his followers, and his noble cause to change the way politics works.

Fooled by joyriders

Analyst Michael Waruinge puts Boniface’s loss down to three issues.

One, some of the people who rode on the ‘StareheNiBonnie’ wave and assured him of their vote were just joyriders moving with the social media wave.

He says, “That is the same way hashtags work. When a topic is trending, many Twitter users will put up a post with the hashtag to be part of the wave. No one wants to be left out. In the same vein, when someone with a noble cause shares his vision, many people want to be politically correct, so they will pretend to support that person, knowing very well in their heart, they back someone else.”

Waruinge adds, “It is the same thing with photos posted on social media. Some people will take 20 selfies, only to post one, which is filtered. Everybody wants to look good on social media. It’s about keeping up appearances. So if appearing to back a noble activist for MP makes you look like a good person, a number of people will do it disingenuously.”

Another explanation for Boniface’s loss is the fact that many people who honestly wanted him to win were probably not voters in Starehe constituency. So the best they could do is spread the word about his cause and hope those registered there would vote for him.

But then comes the issue about the communication platforms Boniface used. Waruinge says, “Starehe is a place where campaigns need to be done on the ground. The people there are common wananchi trying to make their daily bread, and most of them do not use Twitter and some don’t use Facebook either. You might, however, find them on WhatsApp. So if you run a campaign on Twitter on Facebook, you might not reach the people.”

He acknowledges Boniface did his ground work – he engaged one-on-one with Starehe residents – but Waruinge adds he had a disadvantage against Jaguar, who has helped many residents over the years by buying water tanks and launching other small projects relevant to them.

Asking for votes without some financial incentive hardly ever works in Kenya because as the Kiswahili saying goes, “Mkono mtupu haulambwi” [An empty hand cannot be licked].

The Jaguar who drives a Jaguar

Jaguar is also a relatable person for that struggling mwananchi who wants to rise out of poverty and achieve greatness. He started out as a matatu tout and worked his way up to become a well-paid musician, businessman and politician. He has not forgotten where he comes from and is known to help locals by donating cash to small traders to start businesses.

Jaguar lives the good life – he owns a Jaguar and ticks all the boxes of what it takes to be called a rich man. There have been rumours about his source of wealth, but he maintains he is a clean, self-made man.

Boniface is known for activism rather than politics, and Waruinge says it will take him a while to gain a foothold in the latter.

After Boniface conceded defeat on Wednesday, tweets and Facebook posts streamed in with most people saying he fought the good fight and that it was a good first attempt and practice for him to try again in 2022.

But others described him as naïve “for thinking you could fight senior leaders and imagine you would win the seat”.

Final results showed Jaguar had 61,262 votes, Mbogo 38,294 while Boniface had 15,877.

Starehe voter Susan Wangari said, “I cannot believe people didn’t stand by Bonnie. We truly get the leaders we deserve. Anyway, that is over, I did my part and I’m so proud of Bonnie. He is the definition of true courage and I look forward to him trying again in 2011.”

But another voter, Tony Wambua, said, “Boniface should just stick to activism and holding protests. He is an idealist, not a realist. It is very hard to beat the system of corruption in Kenya.”

When all is said and done, it has appears fans, Facebook friends and likes as well as Twitter followers do not count for much when one really needs them to show up.

SIDEBAR: BONIFACE MWANGI’S JOURNEY TO ACTIVISM

Boniface Mwangi has had an eventful activism journey and many people have come to see him as a man who fights for the justice of the helpless.

This is the man who quit his job as a print journalism photographer in 2008 to become an activist after covering the post-election violence and deciding he had to speak up against political ills.

He said, “The two most important days in a man’s life are the day he is born and the day he discovers why.” And an activist was born.

Madaraka Day protests

In 2009, Boniface took his first bold step in protesting against alleged graft and bad governance in the then government.

He stood up alone during Madaraka Day celebrations and heckled then President Mwai Kibaki.

The initial plan was for him and his friends to stand up in unison and protest, but he found himself on his feet alone. Sort of what has just happened to him in the race for Starehe – thousands of Twitter and Facebook users promised to vote for him and started the hashtag ‘Starehe na Bonnie’. But clearly Starehe was with Jaguar.

Vulture protest graffiti

Boniface has staged many bold protests making statements against injustices.

In February 2012, he did the Vulture Graffiti campaign through his PAWA254 initiative. The drive sought to bring attention to bad governance, corruption and abuse of office by politicians.

Forty-one satirical murals of politicians implicated in scandals were put up in Nairobi. Boniface was arrested in December 2012, with police saying spraying walls in the city is illegal.

M Pigs protest

In May 2013, Boniface went a step further and organised the now popular ‘M Pigs’ demo to protest against MPs’ plan to raise their already high salaries.

Boniface and a group of protesters released about 12 piglets with names of politicians written on them using blood outside Parliament Buildings. Blood was also poured on the road next to Parliament.

Boniface became a thorn in politicians’ flesh as he exposed alleged corruption scandals, all of which, however, the implicated legislators denied being involved in.

‘One day I will die’ video

In 2015, Boniface alleged a senior leader was behind the attempt to grab the Lang’ata Road Primary School playground. He later claimed his life was in danger and released a three-minute video acting out his killing. The video was titled ‘One day I will die.’

The video opened with a scene where a doctor was conducting a postmortem on Boniface’s body. It then showed snippets of the causes Boniface has fought. He said all he wants to do is leave a legacy.

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