2 August 2017

Kenya: Deaths, Defections and Deceit - How Fake News Spread

Photo: African Arguments
An example of fake news targeting the Daily Nation. The doctored frontpage is on the left with the real one on the right.

With only a few days to Kenya's 8 August elections, the growing scale, sophistication and potency of fake news is causing alarm in newsrooms, government agencies and among the general public.

Late last week, the BBC was forced to put out a statement after a fake news report designed to appear as if it was from the BBC's Focus on Africa programme circulated on social media. CNN and CGTN have been similarly targeted.

This development is part of a growing problem recently brought into focus by a survey from Portland and GeoPoll which revealed that fake news around Kenya's elections is pervasive. 90% of respondents said they had seen or heard false reports around the general election, with 87% reporting instances of deliberately false – or fake – news. .

The survey of 2,000 Kenyans concluded that fake news is a core part of the country's news mix. Moreover, it found that it is growing in scale and sophistication with social media fuelling its distribution.

Fake news came to international prominence in the 2016 US presidential campaign when false stories were shared more widely on Facebook than mainstream news items. The most popular links favoured Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, leading commentators to ask whether they contributed to his unexpected victory.

Many people expressed shock at what they saw as a new phenomenon, but it was less surprising in Africa where deliberately false or inaccurate news is commonplace during elections.

Kenya's fake news

In Kenya's 2017 election campaign, the issue of fake news shot into the limelight in April when a doctored front page of the Daily Nation circulated in Busia County during the primaries. It claimed that the opposition Orange Democratic Movement's Dr Otumo had defected to the ruling Jubilee party. The story was designed to discredit him on the day of the nomination.

False statements that the Wiper Democratic Movement's leader Kalonzo Musyoka had defected to Jubilee have also circulated widely, along with frequent claims of celebrity deaths. An analysis of the content suggests that much of it is part of an orchestrated and strategic campaign by political actors.

The tactics used can be sophisticated. A fake photo purporting to show cracks in the new Standard Gauge Railway was discovered to have been a bridge in Serbia. Whole websites such as standard-news.co.ke and K24-tv.com have been set up, copying most of their content from mainstream media sites but inserting a few fake stories. Video and audio manipulation is rife as seen in the fake articles made to look like they were from CNN and the BBC.

Unsurprisingly, social media is a key culprit in spreading fake news. Twitter is widely used in Africa for political conversations. And last year, Kenya is reported to have seen the largest growth on Facebook, reaching 5.3 million users, up 18% from a year before.

Private messaging apps like WhatsApp are also at the frontline of dissemination. With smart phone penetration is at 60%, WhatsApp is estimated to have 10 million users across all age groups.

Most of the people that Portland surveyed could list several potentially fake stories that they had seen recently. Many said false information was endemic and presented itself in a range of different ways.

More reassuringly, respondents gave a strong sense that they take a critical approach to news and information. They cited conflicting data, controversial messages and biased reporting as the top factors that lead them to suspect something is false. However, with over a third of Kenyans saying they feel unable to access all the accurate information about the election they need, fake news is undoubtedly limiting the public's ability to make informed decisions.

Time to be vigilant

For the mainstream media, the survey findings may come as good news. Most Kenyans said they trust traditional media sources such as television news, while 78% said they want factual and accurate information. The nation's media establishment should therefore be encouraged to invest in better journalism.

Newsrooms are feeling the effects of fake news and many have created new roles for fact checkers.

But while mainstream media has a duty to counter fake news, it also needs to maintain ever higher professional standards in verifying sources and maintaining balance and accuracy. In this new and uncertain terrain, the value of traditional media lies in its reliability.

It is also in the interests of politicians and businesses to remain hyper-vigilant and to reaffirm the value of the independent media. While it is often the main conduit by which false stories spread, social media is also a key battleground for countering fake news and ensuring that the public remains well informed.

As the race tightens and as tensions rise a few days before the 8 August vote, access to trustworthy and accurate information is ever more important. Both producers and consumers of news will have to be as alert, critical and watchful as possible.

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