“Fake news” is not a new concept anywhere in the world but in the run up to the highly competitive Kenyan elections next week, the rise of fake news is fueling fears that it could exacerbate an already tense situation. Ten years ago, over 1,000 people were killed in election related violence — and that was before sophisticated media manipulation techniques were deployed across the country. With key elections on August 8, fake news manufacturers are working on overdrive, sharply raising the prospects of tainted elections which could turn violent.
A recent study by Portland/GeoPoll found that 90 percent of Kenyans had seen or heard fake news ahead of the August 8 election. From fake news reports to vicious anonymous attack ads, this new dynamic to Kenyan politics has many observers concerned that it could break an already fragile system.
Much like recent elections in the U.S., social media is becoming a major part of electoral politics and campaigning. Almost 30 percent of all Kenyans use Facebook and WhatsApp to get their information about the election, with that number topping out to nearly 50 percent among people aged 26 to 35. Other social media site such as Twitter and YouTube also play a role in disseminating election information, albeit much smaller. With the firehose approach that most social media platforms employ, “fake news” easily gets included along with real news reports, making it that much more difficult for people to discern what is real and what is not.
Much of this is fueled by Kenya’s position as Africa’s “Silicon Savannah.” Kenya is ranked as having the 14th fastest internet in the world, and mobile penetration is estimated at 88 percent. Along with the growing mobile economy is the way mobile is changing the way Kenyans interact with the world around them. It is only natural that politics is part of this, but the way these new technological advances is impacting the election has many people concerned.
Already there are indications that fake news can have an impact on voters. During the primaries in April, Paul Otuoma, a gubernatorial candidate for the Orange Democratic Movement in Busia County, woke up to find pamphlets designed to like the front page of The Daily Nation newspaper declaring that he defected to the rival Jubilee Party. Early results had Otuoma way ahead his rival Sospeter Ojaamong but as news of the “defection” spread, Otuoma quickly fell behind. Although it is impossible to know whether Otuoma would have won the nomination if not for the pamphlets, large protests rocked Busia County once the results announcing Ojaamong win were released. Otuoma is now running for governor as an independent candidate, but in the traditional ODM stronghold of Busia there are concerns that the incident will impact overall voting on August 8.
This is just one example but it highlights the dangers that fake news can have. No one knows who was behind the false pamphlets but it is clear such tactics can have wide-ranging consequences, especially in a setting as politically contentious as Kenya.
Even though national elections in 2013 passed relatively peacefully, election violence has consistently plagued the country since its first multiparty elections in 1992.
Major institutional changes since the chaotic 2007 election means there are greater levels of accountability, but as usual there is the human factor of politics that remains harder to change.
With Kenyan politics still falling mainly on ethnic lines, there are additional concerns about what these new tactics could bring. Adding to this is the hiring by the ruling Jubilee party of Cambridge Analytica, the data mining firm used by the Brexit Leave campaign and U.S. President Donald Trump last year. Firms like Cambridge Analytica go beyond basic opinion polling to profile individual voters, and then specifically target them through social media with posts designed to change their opinions, and hopefully their votes. One recent attack ad against ODM leader Raila Odinga spread through social media is linked to this effort, and immediately alarmed observers with its extremist tone.
Just under a month to Kenya’s general election and campaign attack ads are (literally) going to very dark places. pic.twitter.com/js9haptLA5
— JFJustice (@JFJustice) July 11, 2017
In many ways, this is a new frontier for political campaigns but it is already a controversial one. As Frederike Kaltheuner and Claire Lauterbach of Privacy International pointed out in June, this type of data mining is even more controversial in a setting where ethnicity often determines a person’s voting patterns. “In Kenya, someone’s name is often all you need to discern their ethnicity. Gathering such personal data on millions of Kenyan citizens is highly problematic, especially since it is unclear how such data will be stored and who will have access to it,” they wrote. “Such questions become even more pressing if the election result is contested.” Just by adding Cambridge Analaytica into the mix, especially given its recent impact on elections in the U.K. and U.S., is fueling distrust in the election process and fears over what will happen if Jubilee loses the campaign.
Yet even outside the reported $6 million contract Jubilee has with Cambridge Analytica are more basic problems around “fake news.” Political operatives have taken to setting up fake websites designed to imitate better known names in journalism such as CNN with fake news stories, typically backing President Kenyatta and Jubilee. Other websites such as the “Foreign Policy Journal” provide analysis from a supposed Western think tank analyst about how an Odinga win will plunge Kenya into political and economic chaos. Just last week, fake videos pretending to be from CNN and BBC spread across Facebook and Twitter. Both news agencies publicly refuted the videos and some of the operatives behind these sites have been exposed, but often long after their “news” stories have spread far and wide.
For Kenya, this poses some unique problems for mainstream media. Unlike in the U.S., mainstream media in Kenya ranked as the most trusted institution in the country in an opinion poll last year, with 87 percent of Kenyans placing confidence in the watchdog role of journalism. If the election does remain tight as expected, and if it is ultimately contested by the loser, it is unclear how much trust mainstream media will have in its coverage after so much fake news has permeated the campaigns. With Kenya still try to find its footing after the violent 2007 elections, fake news is one new ingredient the country really doesn’t need.