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Algorithmic power in a contested digital public: cryptopolitics and identity in the Somali conflict

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCryptopolitics: Exposure, concealment and digital media
EditorsVictoria Bernal, Daivi Rodima-Taylor, Katrien Pype
PublisherBerghahn Books
Chapter5
Accepted/In press18 Jul 2022

King's Authors

Abstract

This chapter explores the articulation of conspiracy narratives that have purported to illuminate Al Shabaab’s ongoing insurgency across a fragmented Somalia. It considers how structural and algorithmic characteristics of the Somali-language digital public allow for these narratives’ emergence, circulation and deployment by political actors. Al Shabaab’s extensive clandestine networks across and beyond a divided Somalia lend themselves to local cryptopolitical interpretations of their alleged utility for a variety of different political actors. Over the last decade, various commentators and authorities have accused each other of secretly supporting Al Shabaab’s militancy for different agendas in the context of the ongoing reconfiguration of the Somali state. Inflammatory or misleading conspiracy theories circulate across a fragmented digital public, and have been appropriated by elite political actors. Given the number of competing administrations - as well as domestic and foreign military actors with forces active in Somalia - it is unsurprising that the cryptopolitics of the Al Shabaab war has become a significant feature of local debates that increasingly occur in digital spaces. This chapter draws on the author’s research on these narratives, focusing on Somali-language texts circulating through various interconnected media networks. Calling for greater attention to be paid to the ways in which online platforms engage with contentious content in African indigenous languages, the chapter also analyses an identifiable example of the effects of platform algorithms in transnational Somali-language digital space. This relates to search engine auto-completion suggestions/predictions that foreground particular (and controversial) keywords, such as that of actors’ ‘clan’ identity. The chapter argues that such examples of external algorithmic power need to be scrutinised in relation to online (mis)information in digitally-connected conflict settings, and factored into analyses of identity formation and historical memory in contentious political environments.

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