This article is crossposted from Busara’s blog with excerpts below. Read the full article online

Gideon Too is an Associate Vice President at Busara and has nearly a decade of experience working at the intersection of behavioral science and governance. Alisa Zomer from the MIT Governance Lab sat down with Gideon to talk about the ongoing protests in Kenya to better understand why this moment matters for the country’s democracy, the role of technology and  growing influence of online to offline political movements, and the implications for youth, who are powering the movement.

Why are people taking to the streets now to protest the Finance Bill in Kenya? 

The protests are a culmination of several weeks of conversation around the 2024 Finance Bill that sought to introduce quite a number of changes to taxes on everyday goods and services — changes that were going to put an extra strain on standards of living across the board.

I think the reason why this has struck home is we are still recovering financially from Covid-19. And when this government came into power a couple of years ago, they promised quite a lot of change from the previous regime, specifically around accountability, paying down our national debt, and inclusive development.


The President has responded to the protests and rejected the bill, so what happens next? From your work and experience at Busara on behavioral science and citizen engagement, how does momentum for change continue to build? 

At the moment the bill has been rejected by the President and there’s a series of events triggered by Kenya’s constitutional process, mostly led by Parliament.

Even though the protests have been hard, people have lost their lives, been abducted, and many are disillusioned, this is also a fantastic opportunity. We’re seeing how citizens, particularly young people, are engaging in a meaningful way with the political process in a way we haven’t seen before. Based on Busara’s years of research and collaboration with civil society organizations across the continent, here’s what we know from a behavioral science lens about what’s happening and where to go next:

#1. When people are politically educated, they gain agency and become empowered to meaningfully engage in political change — not just during elections, but around policy issues.

Governance is complex. All political actors are embedded within a broader social, economic, and cultural context that influences their behavior. Citizens’ preferences are shaped by their socio-economic environment, identity markers, public opinions and narratives within their social networks (online as well as offline), and so on. Similarly, our politicians are influenced within the country by party dynamics, constituent pressures, and institutional limitations, while also responding to  external forces such as funding partners, foreign policy obligations, and regional country dynamics. We have witnessed these tensions, norms and dynamics play out in Kenya’s public sphere over the last few weeks.

A number of organizations have engaged Busara to address a common challenge: citizens can often be complacent and disengaged from the political issues that affect them, and organizing and mobilizing communities can be an ongoing challenge. We collaborate with partners to apply behavioral science insights and tools to better understand the communities they serve, and therefore develop and implement strategies that can effectively build an active citizenry.

Through this work with partners, we’ve found interventions that leverage political agency, or the belief that your actions can make a difference individually or as part of a group, are key to sustaining citizen engagement. Agency is informed by our cluster of mental models —norms, values, beliefs, constructs, etc.—, that helps us interpret the world and influence the belief in our ability to control our lives. It can help overcome some of the obstacles to political engagement, including the intimidation of doing something new like actively taking part in your first political protest. Currently, we are witnessing the strengthening of young people’s political agency through civic education in novel ways. The amount of up-to-date publicly available information about the finance bill, its specific proposals, and implications on various facets of our lives moving forward, is remarkable. I was particularly impressed by this Finance Bill GPT that helped interested citizens to understand the finance bill through Chat GPT prompts. Beyond this, there was constant political discourse on various aspects of the proposed bill and its implications across all social and traditional media platforms, and a hunger to learn how else can people be involved, including how to recall one’s Member of Parliament. It was a proud moment for many Kenyans. These protests are an important reminder that citizens will engage in political discourse and activities only if they believe that their contributions can make a difference.

#2. Behavioral biases conscious and unconscious are critical in how political information is created, disseminated, and consumed; how that information moves through online and offline networks; and whether citizen mobilization takes off or is derailed.  

We know from behavioral science that young people’s willingness to engage in political activity is often influenced by their peers’ beliefs, attitudes, and activities, especially online. We saw a number of public figures in Kenya — political leaders, religious leaders, journalists, public intellectuals, entertainers, and social media influencers — play a crucial role in informing and influencing the opinions and narratives that fueled the movement. At the same time, we saw young people conversing online about whether or not it was safe to come out to the street, given Kenya’s history of violent repression of protests. There was also FOMO [fear of missing out] and people asking themselves: “Am I not a good citizen, if I’m not out in the streets with everyone?”. People saw their friends, family and colleagues posting videos of themselves out in the streets protesting, and were influenced by their peers to join in the movement.

Their decision to participate was therefore colored by their basic and non-empirical assessment of the potential risks (such as the threat of state violence) involved in posting something provocative or joining fellow protesters in the streets. We also saw a number of arbitrary detentions of influential mobilizers, which slowed down the movement.

There’s however a potentially dangerous side, and we saw some of that happen as the movement went on. The same channels/avenues through which the protest had been successfully organized quickly became vehicles that facilitated the spread of misinformation and polarization. It led to splintering of views and the emergence of unhealthy discourse and disunity.

Unlike in previous generations, when traditional media houses had strict editorial processes to ensure information is verified before being shared, social media platforms don’t yet have this slow and expensive feature, although features like community notes on X have tried to improve this. Busara ran an experiment to study a prototype of such a  tool. We learned exactly how much consumers now have the burden of evaluating the legitimacy of political information. When they come across flooded social media sites. This, in behavioral science terms, is ‘cognitively expensive’. It forces us to rely on heuristics and biases — deep-rooted beliefs, social norms, identity markers (like our surnames in Kenya), and anchors — to process a lot of information. This is why it can be easy to fall for political mis- and dis-information on noisy social media timelines. People are also more likely to consume and share false information if it appeals to strong emotions (such as fear or outrage). As we have witnessed, this can spill over very quickly and lead to some unintended consequences, including loss of lives, the destruction of businesses, and the desecration of organs of governance and administration like Parliament and City Hall.

#3. Sustained citizen engagement requires constant innovation and interaction, novel ways to communicate and organize through social media, opportunities to practice and strengthen political agency, and, importantly, a government that responds to its citizens.This feedback loop is what creates accountability and a strong democracy. 

We’ve seen how traditional media has taken cues from citizen voices amplified by social media to ignite public discourse and engage its audiences around the protests. Social media platforms therefore continue to contribute to extending Kenya’s public sphere to incorporate more diverse voices, which is great for the health of Kenya’s democracy. Through a thriving public sphere, we get to form our preferences, attitudes and decisions on proposed policy changes, including the Finance Bill 2024. We also get to express our opinions, approvals or disapprovals of our elected representatives, and by so doing hold them accountable.

It’s evident that this form of accountability mechanism works. It’s been able to yield a significant response from government, notably President Ruto conceding and rejecting the Finance Bill. I want to imagine that this has influenced the individual and collective political agency of young people in Kenya moving forward. For example, we saw that some citizens online had begun building and sharing on social media a repository of political representatives’ personal information, including phone numbers, urging people to directly contact their MP [Member of Parliament] and voice their opposition to the proposed bill. Some of these conversations were a lot less respectful and lacked decorum. While this can be a powerful accountability mechanism, it can also erode the already fragile relationship between leaders and their constituents.

That said, I hope that young citizens have observed clear evidence of the impact of their participation and voice as an accountability mechanism. That they can directly negotiate with power, veto decisions, and put forth ideas/recommendations that can to an extent be incorporated. I also believe that the government has taken note of this powerful mechanism, and that moving forward their decisions, activities, opinions will be heavily scrutinized on social media. As more and more of young, social media savvy and politically engaged citizens are coming of age, and with Kenya (and Africa in general) having the youngest population in the world, it’s not difficult to imagine how this is going to influence the political and governance trajectory of the continent.

Read the full article online.

Artwork courtesy of Busara.