Fake News – A Rising Danger in African Politics – 10 Aug 17

Disinformation as a means of influencing the general public is no new thing. Long before President Trump popularised the phrase “Fake News” in 2016, the Allied forces engaged in the Second World War conducted vast information campaigns to galvanise the general public in their respective nations against Nazi forces occupying Europe, then it was called propaganda.  The clear similarity between “Fake News” and state sponsored propaganda is they are both methods of distorting the truth for emotional persuasion, seeking to drive action. The problem with “Fake News” before the internet age is that it was expensive, slow, the consequences for publishing more severe and the chances of getting caught were comparatively high. In the modern world information is so inexpensive to publish to a wide audience and freely available to the readership that it is relatively easy to say whatever you want and make it believable. More importantly, audiences seem more willing to accept news that fits their preconceptions about a given subject and censorship and regulation are nearly impossible.

There are probably five main types of “Fake News”, however the one I would like to focus on in Kenya is news that is intentionally deceptive, i.e. the stories are created with the sole intention of deceiving the audience. The hoax BBC video that was circulated widely on messaging app WhatsApp stating that the BBC predicted President Uhuru Kenyatta would win a decisive victory ten days before the election, is an example. The 1 minute 17 second video is spliced into the BBC Focus on Africa intro and ‘news ticker’ features footage of the President greeting supporters and praises him for rapid economic growth across the country. Even an avid BBC follower would not immediately recognise it as a fake.

One day after the vote Kenya is in a state of moderate trepidation. The much anticipated election was disputed even before a result had been announced. The opposition leader publically stated that he would not accept the result, even though at that time, there was only a provisional, albeit compelling outcome in favour of the incumbent. Within minutes of this not entirely unexpected announcement pockets of isolated violence were reported, this quickly spread across the multitude of communications networks and very quickly there was a perception that something very serious was looming. The reality on the ground was very different. Apart from a single slum area in Nairobi and pockets of unrest in opposition strongholds, there was relative calm.

What proceeded was a flood of high resolution images and videos of Kenyans supposedly rioting in the streets, burning tyres and being hosed down by anti-riot police. Almost all of what was circulating on WhatsApp and other forms of media, was either from 2007/8 post-election violence, the Anti-IEBC protests of 2016, or from another country altogether. But because it fitted the narrative that many were expecting, they of course presumed it to be true and shared it with their friends. The transmission from source to 100 people and onwards to another 100 and so forth, created a perception of truth through sheer weight of circulation. This is immensely dangerous. Although it may feel entirely innocent to share messages, videos and other security related information to friends or loved ones, in Kenya it may sufficiently motivate individuals whom feel cheated or disenfranchised with the political process to actually take to the streets and carry out acts of violence. If Kenya descends into widespread violence it would be of course impossible to draw any form of direct correlation between the spread of “Fake News” and people taking to the streets, however one thing is certain – it does no good.

There is an argument that the demographic that spreads “Fake News” on social media are very different to that which would take to the streets in violent protest. What is clear is there are more than 5.5 million active Facebook users in Kenya and the most visited pages are those of political leaders and national media corporations. Further to this some studies show that up to 60% of Kenyans own a smart phone and according to the number of polling stations that had 3G coverage during the elections, 73% of the population have access to the internet. International media houses with strict regulations and exacting standards are also not infallible to the phenomenon of this “truth through sheer weight of circulation”. A number of internationally respected media houses ran their headline stories for Kenya the day after the 2017 elections with lead images plucked from the 2007/8 post-election violence archive.  This creates an unjust negative perception to an international audience.

We urge all citizens and residents in Kenya as well as the diaspora to be critical of information on the internet and social media, not to take anything at face value and seek verification from professionals before spreading information that contains hyperbolic language or sensationalist content.

 

Dylan Evans
Managing Director Kenya
Salama Fikira


This report is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute professional advice. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this report. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information within the report but Salama Fikira can take no responsibility for inaccuracies of fact or deduction. All images are subject to copyright.