Social media and the spread of alarmist fake news might be what will make the difference in this maturing democracy.
It has been a little more than a week since Kenyans took to the ballot to elect their representatives and leaders for the next five years. On Friday evening, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission declared President Uhuru Kenyatta the winner of the presidential race. Friday night ushered a tense weekend of protests and riots, particularly in the opposition strongholds.
Media reports were scant and left many yearning for updates. As the weekend wore on, it became clear that all was not well in Kenya. The opposition coalition, in a press statement on Saturday, claimed that 100 people had been killed by police officers in the post election violence, while the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights placed the number at 24.
As all this was playing out, many Kenyans, who were not satisfied with the mainstream media’s limited coverage of the situation, were glued to social media channels for updates. Some social media users were providing blow-by-blow updates of events taking place around them, with others amplifying those reports, providing alternative or supplementary commentary. The majority of the reports coming from Nairobi slums of Kibera and Mathare, the city of Kisumu and other opposition stronghold areas were painting a grim picture.
However, the Kenya Red Cross Secretary General, Abbas Gullett, in an interview on Monday, drew attention to an increase in the number of “fake news” making rounds on social media over the weekend. He classified graphic footage and images that were being spread on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp throughout the weekend as “misinformation” aimed at “creating further tension in the country”.
He announced that over the weekend his organisation helped more than 100 people injured as a result of the post-election violence across the country, but dismissed social media reports about night-time attacks in opposition strongholds. He said widely shared stories about the “mayhem” in Nairobi’s Mathare slum on Sunday night were fake, explaining that “they did not receive any distress calls from the area.” His statement elicited angry reactions from the public, as it was perceived to be dismissive of what many were experiencing first hand and reporting.
It cannot be dismissed that there were violent confrontations between the police and protesters, which resulted in multiple deaths and injuries, following the announcement of the election result. And some of this post-election violence was not adequately covered by traditional media organisations. However, we now know that some of the pictures disseminated on popular Kenyan social media accounts over the weekend that allegedly showed police brutality towards protesters were fake.
So, what constituted fake news, and what didn’t? And why were these falsities so common in Kenya during this election season?
The term “fake news” has been used widely during the run up to the August 8 vote in Kenya, with most of what has been classified under the term playing out online. Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter are perhaps the three most popular social media platforms in Kenya, and have been used to share opinions, predictions and fabrications alike before and after the election. There have been websites as well, designed to give the impression that they are authoritative sources of news, that have carried all sorts of (mis)information and propaganda. As has been widely reported, fake news articles and videos bearing CNN, BBC and even NTV Kenya logos were also disseminated and shared widely on social media platforms.
Now, anyone who has an internet connection can tell their story, their version of events, and connect with audiences that may be inclined to (dis)agree with them. By doing so they create debate and even create consensus.
All in all, it has been a controversial election season in Kenya, in which distinguishing truth from lie and real information from “fake news” has been difficult.
Misinformation and propaganda around elections are not new in Kenya, as these tools have most certainly been used to influence voters in past elections. However, this election season has seen these migrate to popular social media platforms, to either play at existing beliefs, fears and biases, or to sway perceptions and even votes on August 8.
Social media is the go-to platform for information for young people, who constituted more than half of the 19.6 million registered Kenyan voters this election. These young people do not necessarily tune into prime time news on television, for instance, as they operate in a real-time news dissemination system, in which they tune in and out, and select what to consume and when, as they deem fit.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Kenyan social media was filled with misinformation and fake news, aiming to alter these young voters’ perceptions, views and actions both before and after the general election.
There are a number of issues, in the Kenyan context, as with elsewhere, that give fake news breeding ground. Chief among them, in my view, is the changing tides of information dissemination in the country. In the past, the government, mainstream media and civil society were the primary sources of information in Kenya. These institutions, as they are liable for the accuracy of the information that they disseminate, acted as a barrier for fake news stories.
However, now, anyone who has an internet connection can tell their story, their version of events, and connect with audiences that may be inclined to (dis)agree with them. By doing so they create debate or consensus. For those who may have felt excluded in narratives put forth by the “traditional estates” of society in the past, these online platforms offer an avenue to be heard and counted, and even alter the narratives presented in mainstream media outlets.
But these people, who now have a chance to influence thousands of people online, are not liable for the accuracy of the information that they put forward. They can purposefully spread false information or “fake news” to alter the public’s opinion on a certain issue, or at least share their own, biased version of the truth. And they can do this with impunity.
Kenya has a history of discrimination against certain communities and the country is still riddled with injustices that remain unaddressed or suppressed. Social media platforms allow Kenyans to voice their grievances about these issues, but these same channels also provide an avenue for dissemination of fake news. On these platforms, dangerous exaggerations and falsities go hand in hand with facts and truths. Also, people’s perceptions and experiences alter what they consider to be truthful, making it even harder to pinpoint what is indeed “fake news” and what is not.
The widely cited survey, The Reality of Fake News in Kenya (PDF) by GeoPoll and Portland Communications offers a useful starting point to better understand what is perceived as “fake news” in Kenya. Defining fake news as the “deliberate spreading of false information”, the study found that 87 percent of respondents had seen information regarding the election they suspected was “deliberately false”. The respondents also noted that social media was the main platform on which they encountered such information.
A majority of respondents also expressed their desire to find credible news sources, perhaps as an antidote to the propaganda and “fake news” that has swept through the Kenyan information landscape online.
In a bid to address the epidemic of fake news and misinformation this election season, the Communications Authority of Kenya and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission issued guidelines that stated that “undesirable political content” would need to be taken down within 24 hours of being notified from any platform hosting such content.
Yet, there have been no noted takedowns as per the guidelines so far. This approach could also be a game of whack-a-mole, as the taking down of such content on one platform wouldn’t prevent it from being disseminated through other, hard to control platforms, such as WhatsApp and Telegram.
Even as we move past the election season, it is to be expected that misinformation will continue to manifest. It is not sufficient to decry “fake news” and blame social media as the sole culprit. As well as assessing what constitutes “fake news”, we need to understand why fake news appeals to Kenyans at this point in time and we need to have an honest discussion about the failures of traditional news sources. Only then can we tame the Kenyans appetite for “fake news”.
Nanjira Sambuli is a researcher, policy analyst and advocacy strategist interested in and working on understanding the unfolding impacts of ICT adoption and how those impact governance, innovation, entrepreneurship and societal culture, with a keen focus on gender implications. She is currently the Digital Equality Advocacy Manager at the Web Foundation, where she leads advocacy efforts to promote digital equality in access to and use of the Web.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.