How Gen Z and social media fuelled massive protests in Kenya against new taxes

Kenyan President William Ruto on Wednesday withdrew his decision to sign a controversial law to enforce new taxes in his country, a day after mass protests erupted in the capital city of Nairobi, where demonstrators stormed Parliament and over 20 people reportedly died.

How Gen Z and social media fuelled massive protests in Kenya against new taxes

The Financial Bill 2024, which aimed to levy additional taxes necessary to pay the country’s high debt and would have raised the overall cost of living, was heavily criticised by the younger generation of Kenyans.

If the bill had passed, basic amenities like bread, cooking oil, sanitary napkins, baby diapers, digital gadgets, vehicle ownership, specialised hospitals and imported items would have become unreasonably expensive.

While President Ruto called the protests “treasonous events”, Aron, 29, from Nairobi’s Kibera slum, told Reuters that the demonstrators were part of a “brand-new movement”. “It is going to unite the youth and the old like never before,” he added.

The protests were purely a consequence of social media, with a majority of the participants being from Gen Z—those born roughly between the late 1990s and early 2010s. They used social media as a tool of coordination to mobilise and organise the protests.

How was social media used?

In an interview with The Conversation, a media website, Job Mwaura, a digital media and activism expert, explained that Gen Z Kenyans used artificial intelligence to create images, songs and videos to broadcast the message of the protest besides educating people on the Bill.

Developers also created a specialised GPT (generative pretrained transformer)—a platform like Chat GPT where one can access information and ask questions relevant to the Bill. Educational videos in multiple Kenyan dialects also surfaced on platforms like TikTok and X.

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On the contrary, Ruto’s allies initially dismissed the protests as a “fit of pique by wealthy, entitled kids”. “They arrive at the protests in Uber. When they leave the protests, they go to KFC to eat chicken,” Kimani Ichung’wah, the majority leader in Parliament, told his supporters.

While President Ruto and his allies were left startled by the extent of the protest, hashtags like #OccupyParliament and #RejectFinanceBill2024 were trending on social media platforms for several days. Another hashtag, #tupatanethursday, a mix of Swahili and English meaning “see you on Thursday”, was viral on social media.

Not just this, successful digital crowdfunding campaigns were also running simultaneously to raise money to help more protesters reach Nairobi’s central business district.

With this also came extreme digital activism like the hacking of government websites and public dissemination of phone numbers of political leaders, in an attempt to spam them with SMS and WhatsApp messages. This forced the office of the data protection commissioner to issue a statement warning them to stop. Tech-savvy activists also created a website featuring a “wall of shame” that lists politicians who support the Finance Bill 2024.

This helped the protesters increase pressure on parliamentarians to potentially change their stance.

“We expected him to appreciate the gravity of the issue and empathise with the young people. Instead, people saw an angry president,” a protester said of President Ruto. “Many young people who helped vote Ruto into power with cheers for his promises of economic relief now object to the pain of reforms,” the protester added.

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Digital activism and criticism

It is not the first time that a potent tool like social media has been used for advocacy; the Black Lives Matter, Me Too and several other movements have turned out to be successful digital campaigns. Yet there are several drawbacks attached to this style of activism. An article published by the University of Sussex says that slacktivism—a kind of “lazy” activism that requires very little effort like simply reposting, liking or commenting—is understood to be of little real world impact.

Digital activism might not look like an active form of agitation, but the recent protests in Nairobi show that political leaders can succumb to online pressure.


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