As social media grows in Kenya, so does the disturbing and toxic ‘manosphere’

It was not so much a rabbit hole I found myself down, but in a whole warren of sexist content when I began researching a story on Kenya’s “manosphere” – a loosely connected network of websites and social media platforms that promote misogyny online.

What I saw was disturbing: scores of tweets, posts and video content that denigrated, objectified and “slut-shamed” women, or encouraged men to exercise coercive control.

I found “masculinity” sessions that trend weekly on Elon Musk’s X platform, promoting views that men should dominate women; comments that equated masculine power with the ability to impregnate; warnings for men to be vigilant against feminists and wary of child-entrapment ploys; and cautions against women who have terminated pregnancies, with deeply unscientific advice on how to identify them.

There’s nothing new about misogyny, and Kenya is no exception. But online communities that promote harmful messaging have grown exponentially over the past few years, mirroring the growth in social media users in Kenya. And while movements such as #MeToo have sparked global reckonings on gender power dynamics, the manosphere in Kenya has exploded, as women’s increased social and economic power is perceived as a threat to men’s status and wellbeing.

After reading a couple of posts from the manosphere, similar content began to crop up on my timeline as the algorithms got to work. Harmless discussions around relationships, health and finances can quickly descend into damaging narratives. Old gender stereotypes are packaged as new revelations, as influencers position themselves as underdog truth tellers in a “gynocentric” world. “Red pill” ideology – the perceived “awakening” to “realities” about gender – is gaining a following from men’s rights communities. It includes ideas that it is men, not women, who are now socially and politically disadvantaged by gender politics, and need to reclaim power: a framing not based on fact and which risks eroding support for women’s rights in Kenya, where gender inequality is still deeply engrained.

When I tried to engage with manosphere influencers for comment, my emails were published online, and I received backlash

Female social media users I spoke with said they prefer to just block accounts producing such content rather than engage, avoiding contradicting or correcting false statements through their fear of being trolled, harassed or doxed.

Such concerns are well placed. When I tried to engage with manosphere influencers for comment, my emails were published online and I received backlash. Researchers I spoke to were already reticent regarding their findings on online misogyny for fear of being targeted, and the pushback I received amplified those concerns. Important sources dropped out or withdrew their comments. One discouraged me from pursuing my story, saying it put any women I interviewed at risk of becoming a “sitting duck”.

Disinformation and rights groups agree that the growth of the manosphere is concerning, but have different ideas on how to tackle it. Disinformation analysts insist that direct counter-engagement could expand or legitimise manosphere platforms, while rights groups say that a reluctance to act could silence women on social media platforms, push them into online echo chambers, or elbow them out entirely – activists warn that failure to tackle the rise of the toxic technoculture will affect progress towards the UN target to close the digital gender divide by 2030.

One influencer told how the attacks she received last year had affected how she interacts online.

“I’ve seen this trend in the last few years where guys are tearing women down while hiding behind their anonymity,” says the life coach Taruri Gatere, 38, who posts on topics such as sex and life as a child-free woman. She now draws a line between her personal and online personas. “I’m trying to regroup and find a way to engage online in a way that keeps me safe,” she says.

Online attacks are often “decentralised”, which makes it easier for users to evade accountability for violating content, say researchers.

“You’re unlikely to find that [attacks] are being orchestrated by one person or group,” says Tim Squirrell, from the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, who tracks harm and extremism on social media platforms.

“You might see it being discussed in comment sections, or in Telegram channels or in other semi-private spaces,” he says. “It can lead to you being inundated by hundreds if not thousands of abusive messages and the consequence of that is that you’re forced out of participating in the online space and sometimes from public life in general.”

These communities pose a risk to boys and men searching for guidance about male identity in changing times. They are now likely to find communities that exploit men’s anxieties, call them victims of “a global assault on masculinity” that has left them “silenced”, “emasculated”, “disposable” or “disrespected”.

“It’s agency that most men are looking for, masquerading as the need for power,” says healthy masculinity advocate Onyango Otieno. Growing up witnessing violence in two generations of his family made him question ideas of manhood.

But there is a cult-like following for anti-equality or sexist content, with some of it viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. Men who criticise manosphere beliefs are met with contempt, labeled “simps”, “soyboys” or “manginas” – despised as effeminate or eager to please women.

Controversial content – “rage-harvesting” – has boosted influencers’ careers, says Squirrell. “Some key Kenyan players in the manosphere have risen to this kind of almost demigod status. This isn’t just happening organically – social media systems have been built in such a way that they encourage and promote the most sensationalist, provocative and outrageous content, which is often the content that is hateful. And platforms profit from that, so this is a kind of symbiotic ecosystem.”

Related: ‘It’s just you – and memories’: Kenyan rape survivors find help hard to find

Major social media platforms – X, YouTube and Meta – all have cybercrime policies that prohibit “objectionable content” such as hate speech, bullying and harassment and maliciously targeting certain groups or the use of sexual profanity. However, the policies are implemented to varying degrees, and influencers are smart enough to use slang or lesser-known languages to evade detection.

Defenders of manosphere content call it fair comment, freedom of speech, and takedowns of woke or cancel culture. But disinformation groups believe the growth of these communities is having an outsized influence on women and girls in Kenya, which remains under-scrutinised. Studies show links between toxic masculinity – the assertion of male dominance and power over women – and sexual violence.

“The greatest danger is not that there is discriminatory language flying around on social media, [but that it] ends up in hate crimes and produces the social consent for gender-based violence and rape,” says Irũngũ Houghton, a human rights advocate and the director of Amnesty International Kenya.

More than 40% of women in Kenya already experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and one in three girls experience sexual violence before turning 18.

The fight against digital patriarchy is still new, says Houghton.

“As more organisations begin to understand that the manosphere is a site of contestation, we will see more of them begin to take this on,” he says.