Fake News Has Swept Through Kenya. Now, Voters Must Decide What To Believe.

New media has created a battlefield that could alter the course of politics in the country.
08/08/2017 02:36 am ET
The “information wars” online may be aiming to influence how people vote  ― and how the final outcome is acc
MARCO LONGARI via Getty Images
The “information wars” online may be aiming to influence how people vote  ― and how the final outcome is accepted.

NAIROBI, Kenya ― Was there a raid on Kenya’s main opposition coalition’s offices on Friday night, just days ahead of Election Day? Was it carried out by the police? Was it staged altogether in a last-minute attempt to sway the electorate? Who is telling the truth? What is the truth?

These are some of the questions Kenyans are currently grappling with as they cast their ballots in the tightly contested presidential race Tuesday.

News of the incident broke online late Friday night. The story then took a strange twist when a number of local media swiftly corrected their narratives to indicate that the raid was supposedly a “false alarm,” with the accounts given by some of the National Super Alliance, the main opposition coalition, officials “turn[ing] out [to be] untrue.”

Even today, it’s unclear what exactly transpired ― and nothing has been entirely confirmed.

But this warping of reality is nothing new for Kenya, especially in this current political climate. Much of the general public, along with government officials, now dub Friday’s incident “fake news” in a nod to a trend already familiar to Europe and the United States. The event adds to the array of propaganda, attack adssocial media campaigns and conspiracy theories that have been prominent online features already in this election season. A growing discontentment and distrust of traditional news sources, coupled with social media disrupting how information flows, have provided fertile ground for these phenomena to take root and thrive.

Such a landscape has upped the stakes in an already close election dominated by ethnic divisions, where the youth vote matters, and where democracy may be on the line. Understanding the digital battleground in Kenya can give us a glimpse at what may influence how this key demographic performs at the ballot box. If, indeed, the information they have been exposed to online gives birth to a new way of dividing the country along ethnic lines, “fake news” will have succeeded in swaying the very generation many have hoped would break this cycle of polarization.

The Emerging Fake News Landscape

“Fake news” quickly emerged in online platforms as an issue of intrigue in in the lead-up to Kenya’s election. Yet fake news isn’t necessarily new to Kenya or its elections. What has changed is the means by which it is spread, and the explicit nomenclature for a practice that has existed during practically every election cycle; a case of old tactics meeting new, popular platforms.

Some of the election-related rumors and propaganda being referred to as “fake news” go back to pre-internet days. In times past, the mediums through which these were disseminated included leaflets, word of mouth and even SMS, as noted in audits of previous election outcomes. Kenyans have come to expect that election season will be anything but smooth sailing. Yet the digital battleground adds a new arena for tension. With this particular cycle, the “information wars” online may be aiming to influence how people vote on Tuesday ― and how the final outcome is accepted. The question is: How far can fake news go in influencing this election, and what will it mean for political discourse in Kenya going forward?

How far can fake news go in influencing this election, and what will it mean for political discourse in Kenya going forward?

A recent study by GeoPoll and Portland Communications found that 90 percent of survey respondents suspected they had “seen or heard false or inaccurate information” about the election, with 87 percent stating they had “seen information that they suspected was deliberately false” or fake news. The joint report defined fake news as “deliberate spreading of false information,” and noted that given the high percentage of respondents who stated encountering fake news, it is a concept that most Kenyans are able to identify. Social media was highlighted as a key platform in the spread of such information.

Whatever the case, the digital space in the country will remain one to watch even when the elections have come and gone, since having all this playing out primarily on social media platforms allows us to gauge reactions and get a sense of whether messages tailored to influence or sway the electorate are landing as expected with the target audiences. While not necessarily representative of voices and perspectives of all Kenyans, the online space offers a key window of insight into issues that citizens here care about and are irked by.

Platforms And Patterns Of Dissemination

A simple Google search on any of the leading presidential candidates can yield top results from sites that either trump up a candidate’s greatness or portray the other as a threat to the country.

If Twitter is your preferred online news source, it can often become impractical to follow discussions on a popular topic and draw out the facts given how much a trending topic can be quickly flooded with reactions, some of which obfuscate the point altogether. Many of the accounts that initiate and contribute fervently to hashtag campaigns of this nature could be categorized as bots. While several bots carry “real names” and even profile pictures, they have either existed for very short periods of time, or their tweeting history predominantly features similar tweeting.

A simple Google search on any of the leading candidates yields top results that either trump up their greatness or portray them as a threat to the country.

Brands such as global anti-corruption coalition Transparency International Kenya and the British High Commission have also been hijacked, in a bid to establish information propaganda as authoritative. Then there are websites meticulously designed to resemble those of renowned media organizations ― videos with BBC and CNN tags that have been doing the rounds, including screenshots designed to mimic visuals from news organizations’ brands. Local media brands have not been spared either.

WhatsApp, too, has been noted to be a primary means of disinformation distribution. Depending on the kind of groups a voter may be a part of, and if they allow their peers in the group to share news, updates and opinions on the election, the government, the opposition or other voters, it is possible to be exposed to a world of fake news and propaganda without assessing counter views ― unless one actively pursues alternatives. It is relatively easy to inflate confirmation bias and exist in filter bubbles, much the same as with Facebook. Ask many a Kenyan, and they’re likely to confirm they have received a WhatsApp message with the disclaimer “sent as received.”

Fighting Back Against Fake News

While Facebook has stepped in and offered tools to combat fake news on its platform and on WhatsApp, including taking out local newspaper ads to raise awareness on “how to spot false news,” the move has only come days before the election. This might be too little, too late, yet it’s still a welcome acknowledgement that the global platform has noted the scourge of fake news in Kenya and chosen to act on it.

The authorities are wrestling with their role in all this as well. The Communications Authority of Kenya (the information and communications technology industry regulator) and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (an entity set up to promote national unity after the 2007 and 2008 post-election violence) issued political social media guidelines ahead of the vote.

Likely borrowing a page from guidelines issued in Germany, the guidelines in Kenya said social media service providers “shall be required to pull down accounts used in disseminating undesirable political contents on their platform that have [been] brought to their attention within 24 hours.”

It remains to be seen just exactly how these guidelines will be enforced, and if they will impact how fake news, hate speech and other “undesirable political content” online is addressed. For now, they are perceived as an attempt to temper political discussions because for one, it is unclear how “undesirable content” is defined, and by whom.

The digital battleground for these elections may be just as important as the outcome.

Given that the government has assured Kenyans that there will not be an internet shutdown, a possibility that has crossed many minds due to the tactic’s traction in neighboring countries to quell tensions, the digital battleground for these elections may very well be just as important as the outcome ― and its aftermath.

The overall aim of the websites, the hashtag campaigns and brand hijacking appears to be disinformation. They look to capture people’s attention while playing to their biases and opinions, continually feeding them information that reinforces their belief system. And during election time, the goal may also be to influence how Kenyans vote and eventually react to the electoral outcome. 

The week ahead will be a tense one as the country awaits the election verdict. The information landscape is bound to usher in even more speculative news ― and likely a surge of fake news ― including possible crackdowns by the authorities on those reported to be purveying “undesirable political content.” It is also very likely that once the election results are announced, life  ― both online and offline ― will go on, with all these events being a mere highlight of election campaigns and their intrigues. Fake news may change the course of civil discourse in the country, or it may be altogether forgotten once the fog clears. Only time will tell.

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