Nairobi, Kenya – Kenyans are heading to the polls on Tuesday to elect a president. Voters will also choose governors, members of parliament and senators. But Tuesday’s election is different. It is the election in which social media came of age. It is the one where fake news made an entrance and became mainstream.
Western PR firms have been hired to polish up the images of candidates and tarnish that of competitors. Attack ads have become common.
A record amount of money has been spent to convince millions of registered voters.
Taxpayers are footing most of it – a $480m bill to execute the poll, according to Kenya’s national treasury.
The successful presidential candidate will spend at least $50m to get to the state house, according to Johnson Sakaja, the former chairman of the party that put President Uhuru Kenyatta in power in 2013.
The financial strain of the most expensive election in the country’s history will be felt long after the August 8 election.
The two main candidates – President Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga – are going the extra mile to come out on top. Their main target: the youth – those between 18 and 35 – who make up more than half of the 19.6 million registered voters.
To make sure the young voters cast their ballot for them, candidates have set up digital teams and are working round the clock posting photos, videos and giving live commentary from campaign rallies.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the new ways to reach these internet-savvy young voters.
Dozens of slick campaign videos have been uploaded on Facebook in the past couple of weeks. When not sharing videos and photos on the social network the hopefuls are doing Facebook Lives to answer questions from voters who did not attend their rallies.
Nothing has been left to chance.
News conferences are having to compete with 140 characters posted on verified Twitter accounts of candidates.
Opponents have even traded virtual blows courtesy of social media.
Fake news of opinion polls claiming to be from the new channels BBC and CNN have been posted and widely shared on social media in an attempt to scare voters from opponents. Fake news sites have also popped up online.
The election in Kenya has changed drastically. And those candidates who do not adapt might find themselves out of office.
With polls suggesting a close election, social media and the spread of alarmist fake news might be what makes the difference in this maturing democracy.