Comparing ‘new’ and ‘old’ media for crisis monitoring in Kenya’s unprecedented elections

Dr Caitriona Dowd

Media monitoring can play an important role in understanding, tracking, and responding to violence and unrest. It is often used to identify and map incidents and patterns of insecurity in ongoing crises. Effectively monitoring levels of insecurity is also an important component of tracking progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Goal 16 of which is to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies. Monitoring can draw on either ‘old’ media, such as newspapers, and/or ‘new’ social media, such as Twitter or Facebook. To date, however, there has been limited empirical research comparing the profile of unrest represented in these different sources.

A new paper, co-authored by DCU researcher Caitriona Dowd with IDS researchers Patricia Justino and Gauthier Marchais, and ACLED Research Director Roudabeh Kishi, published in July in Research and Politics, seeks to address this. It assesses the comparative advantages of ‘new’ and ‘old’ data sources for crisis monitoring by comparing reports of political violence and demonstrations published on social media (Twitter) and traditional media (drawn from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED). Data was collected surrounding the Kenyan elections in August and October 2017 and reveals important differences across ‘new’ and ‘old’ media sources.

What ‘New’ and ‘Old’ Media Tell us about Crisis

 The research scanned public posts to Twitter and reports drawn primarily from traditional media to comparatively analyse the profile of violence and unrest reported. The paper finds that records from Twitter are more geographically concentrated, particularly in the capital city and wealthier areas, and are timelier in the immediate period surrounding elections. By contrast, records from traditional media have a wider geographic reach, and are relatively more numerous than those from Twitter in rural and less wealthy areas. They are also timelier and more consistent in the run-up to and following elections.

The table below summarises the key findings:


‘Old’ Media Reports (ACLED)

‘New’ Media Reports (Twitter)
Physical coverage

More coverage in rural areas outside the capital city

More coverage in densely populated areas and capital city



More coverage in economically less developed areas

More coverage in economically more developed areas



Faster reporting overall, but relatively less timely immediately surrounding elections

Slower reporting overall, but more timely in period immediately surrounding elections


Sustained reporting

More reporting in the pre- and post-election period

More reporting in period immediately surrounding elections

Table I. Key differences in reporting by data sources (Dowd et al. 2020, p. 7)

The findings suggest that contrary to initial, optimistic accounts, social media and digital technologies present both opportunities and limitations for crisis monitoring, which should be carefully weighed by practitioners, policymakers and researchers. While neither source can fully capture the ‘true’ unrest that occurred, one way to mitigate against these limitations is to supplement monitoring systems using a constellation of sources tailored to the unique context, to reduce biases or gaps in any individual system.

A Multi-Disciplinary Research Team and Approach:

The Economic and Social Research Council-funded study was a partnership between multiple institutions. The latest paper built on research documenting the impact of digital inequalities and the changing role of social media in violent contexts (see Roberts and Marchais, 2017). The project also included research on electoral violence in Kenya, where SMDTs have played an important role in crisis monitoring in past election cycles (see Mutahi and Kimari, 2017).

Alongside researchers from Dublin City University and the Institute of Development Studies, co-author Roudabeh Kishi is ACLED’s Research Director. ACLED is the world’s leading source of real-time disaggregated data on political violence and unrest across a growing number of regions. For each context that it covers, ACLED develops a tailor-made sourcing process (see this methodology primer.) At the time of data collection for this project, ACLED relied largely on published media (newspapers, newswires and published reports) in the Kenyan context. However, building on the study’s findings, the research has already informed changes in ACLED’s sourcing strategy. Namely, select new media accounts – including Twitter and Facebook accounts – operated by trusted sources are now included in ACLED’s regular coverage of Kenya.

The Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies (CHRIPS) in Nairobi was also a partner in the project. CHRIPS is a leading international African research centre based in Kenya that conducts high-quality policy-relevant research on human rights, security, terrorism and counter-terrorism, violence, crime and policing. As part of the project, researchers from CHRIPS produced a working paper on the impact of social media in Kenya’s elections, which in turn, inspired a later publication by CHRIPS researchers Patrick Mutahi and Brian Kimari on fake news in Kenya’s 2017 election.

Looking Forward:

While the recent study focuses on Kenya, the findings point to the value of drawing on a constellation of sources to leverage complementary advantages in different contexts. Efforts to incorporate new technologies in crisis monitoring and response benefit from tailoring data collection to the specific information landscape, its associated (digital) inequalities, and the profile of unrest. Further research into the generalisability of the findings concerning trade-offs in coverage over time and in rural and urban areas, and the verification and accuracy of reporting across source types, would be valuable as these initiatives continue to grow.

Read the full article here.
Read related working papers and blogs here.

Caitriona Dowd is Assistant Professor in Security Studies at DCU’s School of Law and Government. Her research focuses on the dynamics of political violence in sub-Saharan Africa, with particular attention to the role of conflict in humanitarian crises, civilian targeting and terror tactics, and the use of new and emerging methodologies for violence monitoring. Employing a combination of quantitative, geographic and qualitative methodologies, Caitriona’s research explores patterns of conflict in comparative contexts, in both cross-national and country-focused cases. Her work has been published in international peer-reviewed journals including African Affairs, Terrorism and Political Violence, Political Geography, and Peacebuilding.

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