Bankelele: Who owns government officials’ Tweets?

Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i appears to have taken down his verified Twitter account.

Photo credit: AFP

In the last few days, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i appears to have taken down his verified Twitter account and this has sparked some debate on if it contained information that he should have retained and handed over to be preserved with the National Archives.

Last week, State House had an online transition from President Uhuru Kenyatta to President William Ruto with the profile picture changing to the new President on the day he took the oath of office. The new President's account is still a work in process, changing its tone, subject and authorship. A tweet was put up announcing an about-turn in diplomacy between Morocco and Western Sahara that was later pulled down.

While some commentators and bloggers are deleting tweets created in the heat of the election season, people who serve in government, and who put up content on their official handles, should not have that luxury.

Twitter represents a good source of information as government departments and ministries are not good at maintaining websites. You can search a Twitter timeline and see breaking news and note official events that happened, but which do not appear on the organization's websites.

Matiang'i’s tenure as CS had three phases; first from April 2013 to November 2015, when he was the CS for ICT, then at the Education Ministry to January 2018. President Kenyatta appointed him to the Interior Ministry in 2017 when Joseph Ole Nkaissery passed away and held that role until now. Also in January 2019, he was appointed as Chairman of the National Development Cabinet Committee.

Matiang'i joined Twitter in April 2013 and ran his verified account until sometime in September 2022.  With a tool like Internet Archive "Wayback Machine," you can observe his tweets on different topics like digital migration, securing national examinations and police reforms and see an evolution of writing styles.  It was certainly Matiang'i’s Twitter account, but it also represents an in-built archive of his decade heading important dockets in the government. He sent 1,800 tweets, averaging one per day and had 1.3 million followers at the end.

His earlier tweets at the ICT and Education ministries were in a personal style and you feel that he was the one in charge of his account, sending tweets about his daily activities as he also responded to issues raised such as negotiations on teacher salaries, protecting journalists and calling out untruths about leaders. 

Later, as Cabinet Secretary for the Interior, his tweets were more comprehensive. You sense that they were done by a professional team capturing his daily activities as the CS, articulating government policies, with multiple pictures, and extracts of his speeches, as they happen, and tying in with activities at other agencies like the National Police Service. The Interior Ministry's Twitter account would have similar content, and the same message, but in a different style, not merely re-tweeting each other, likely by a different author with a more official style for the government. 

In exiting from Twitter, CS Matiang'i may be following his boss, President Kenyatta who in March 2019 disconnected from his verified Twitter that had 3.6 million followers as well as other platforms. While State House said it was because of unauthorised access to the account, in later years the President would say it was for peace of mind from the online noise and useless abuse. 

But, these days, Twitter has more tools to protect its celebrated authors. He could have made his account private or chosen to filter feedback by blocking users or only allowing people he named to reply.

Finally deactivating a Twitter account makes the account go invisible to readers, but it might not be deleted and remains available only to him as the author. He may have taken his account down to have a break, or for some quiet time perhaps to write a book in peace, by using his Twitter timeline as a good research source. With 1.3 million followers, Matiang'i’s verified account will be a useful medium as he shifts to a new life phase or career. 

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