In our series of letters from African journalists, media and communications trainer Joseph Warungu examines why Kenyans are becoming wary of what they post on social media.
Imagine this: you are spending a great Christmas vacation in a fantastic location abroad. You go to a fancy restaurant and order an exquisite meal. And because you have a loyal following on social media, you decide to snap good pictures of the abundant food and share them.
How else would people know that you have eaten food that your villagers have never seen in their lives and that even you cannot pronounce the name of?
And when you hit “Share”, the immediate reaction is: “Oooh, mmh, nice! Look at you! Wow!” This is quickly followed by sweet comments as to how they wish to be there.
But there is another hidden tag in Kenya now that covers every step you take, every photo you post, every meal you eat, every car you flaunt, every house you flaunt , tracked.
That loyal follower is the finance officer.
You see, the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) has confirmed that it is using communications technology to enforce tax compliance.
These include blockchain, artificial intelligence, machine learning and data mining technologies.
The camera doesn’t lie
“KRA has a dedicated team whose job, among other insight-driven risk-based analysis, is to study the lifestyle of targeted taxpayers.
“In some cases, this may include viewing target people’s social media profiles,” admits a KRA spokesman.
“Isn’t that an invasion of people’s privacy?” I ask.
“No,” says the authority: “The KRA does not violate anyone’s personal rights, since what they post is publicly available and is published on public social media.”
I decide to put even more pressure on the tax office.
How does the KRA manage to bring the lifestyle – as it is portrayed on social media – in line with tax compliance? After all, they may not own the property or the goods they display online.
Well, it turns out that the tax officer has a very effective media surveillance team that is scanning the countryside to see if what we are displaying is against the tax return rules.
“KRA can then check that the sources of income and taxes paid correspond to the lifestyle presented. Also note that KRA is enabled to access and exchange other government agencies via the multi-agency team framework.”
That sounds scary. When the KRA commissioner general said the agency was using technology to monitor tax compliance, his video clip went viral and Kenyans made bananas to declare their wealth.
Business or economy class?
And the tax officer noticed a change.
“The number of individual taxpayers rushing to check their tax compliance status has increased steadily. Recently, we have increased more than 60% of the tax compliance requests submitted on the i-Tax online platform.”
After the initial shock of a tax officer snooping was over, Kenyans sought relief by creating their own humorous media to explain what the tax officer was up to.
One of the images that went viral was an image of a bird peeping through the window of an airplane in mid-flight and saying to a confused passenger, “Hey, I’m just checking to see if you’re in business class or economy class.”
The message of the tax office or tax bird reads: “Those who can afford business class can definitely afford to state a little more in their tax return.”
So what prompted the KRA to develop these ingenious methods to stamp out tax evaders or those who are very conservative with the truth when it comes to tax returns?
Put simply – tax goals.
Since Kenya reported its first Covid-19 case in March 2020, the country has increased its national debt by 1.42 trillion Kenyan shillings ($ 12.5 billion; £ 9.3 billion).
Part of the terms of a recent IMF loan of $ 2.34 billion
A senior source tells me that the government’s message to the KRA was simple, “You need to make a lot more revenue by finding two million new taxpayers.”
And guess the best places to find these people – yes you have it – on social media!
The tax officer got to work immediately and exceeded expectations. In a statement released in October, the KRA announced that it had exceeded its revenue collection targets by $ 132 billion for the first quarter.
It confirmed that it received quite a bit of help on the internet.
“Kenier on Twitter (KoT) and other online content creators who have actively created fun content about KRA engagements with taxpayers are positively impacting awareness of tax compliance.”
So while I prepare to capture my big Christmas vacation on camera, rest assured that I’ll be in a dirt cheap t-shirt and jeans, my gruff face framed by a battered bike.
I don’t want to apologize to the tax officer for making this call.
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