As Kenya hurtles towards the next general election on August 9, 2022, there is growing concern about the proliferation of digital influence operations polluting the electoral information ecosystem.
The worry comes against the backdrop of multiple digital investigations into social media platforms that revealed that politicians in Kenya had found a way to hire hordes of jobless young people with an online following to manipulate the algorithms to sway public opinion.
The politicians have co-opted some social media users with large following to help spread bits of propaganda, misinformation, disinformation and plain falsehoods.
Similarly, administrators of social media pages and groups with large numbers surreptitiously lease their services to political formations, intending to spark fake debate to gauge sentiments and even to manipulate perceptions.
Also, public figures are exploiting their direct access to digital audiences to spread false information.
The problem is not just the crafty users targeting other gullible users on the platforms.
The sociality and engagement embedded in the platforms, from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tiktok, Instagram and even WhatsApp make it easier for false information to spread like wildfire.
A polluted information ecosystem makes it impossible to have factual conversations, increases polarisation, amplifies intolerance and makes it difficult for the public to make decisions based on the existing reality.
We have all seen fake front pages of major newspapers, manufactured screenshots of tweets, videos with false context, fake screenshots of messages and chats, doctored videos and photos, and even phony subtitles purporting to translate videos of politicians speaking in vernacular.
The dubious dog-whistling, previously witnessed in rallies, is now seeded online, further deepening the country’s shaky social, cultural and even economic divisions.
The ghosts of some of the foreign companies that executed sneaky influence operations in 2013 and 2017, including the defunct Cambridge Analytica, remain alive in Kenya.
On WhatsApp in Kenya these days, politicians seed tiny factoids of information to build a flattering, often misleading narrative, about their public record, and to smear their opponents.
These underhand disinformation and trolling tactics are becoming mainstream because there is a perception in the online and political circles that some of those strategies worked.
Therefore, for politicians, an active disinformation and troll operation is a must-have in their campaign toolkit. Two key questions arise.
First, how can Kenyans keep the public debate honest in such an environment where politicians are splashing money and actively supporting a thriving disinformation industry?
Second, is there a way to speak about the danger of political and election-related misinformation and disinformation in a way that makes it urgent and empowering for the public to demand accurate information?
Independent and non-partisan fact-checking remains the quickest reliable vanguard against the spread of false information.
It holds politicians and other public figures accountable for what they say.
It ensures that they have a better understanding of the most recent credible information about whatever topic they speak about.
It is about making sure the public figures and the citizens inhabit the same reality – a prelude to evidence-based decision-making.
We have to find a way to end the helplessness in the phrase ‘kwa ground vitu ni different’, to mean, that reality differs from what is on paper.
Besides, fact-checkers such as Africa Check, PesaCheck and AFP Factcheck have partnerships with platforms such as Google and Facebook which enable them to scale their goal of slowing down the spread of false information.
Google’s amplification of fact-checks in the search results, the Google Factcheck Explorer (the portal of factchecks), and Facebook’s third-party fact-checking programme are some of the initiatives that continue to offer incremental results.
But fact-checking alone is not enough. Research has shown that fact-checking works effectively if it is done alongside other initiatives to promote information integrity.
Information and communication professionals must work together to maintain information hygiene during the madness of the electioneering period. For instance, the collaborative journalism project under the Fumbua initiative (www.fumbua.ke) to promote honest public debate, amplify accurate information and boost media literacy ahead of the 2022 general elections is useful. Seeing journalists, content creators, influencers, poets, filmmakers, photographers, podcasters, factcheckers, editors and communications professionals come together to fight false information is encouraging.
It ensures that honest debate thrives. It makes sure that those who inadvertently spread false information know what the facts are.
And, lastly, it makes sure that the merchants of fake news are called out.
Platforms too have a major role in taming the spread of false information.
The algorithmic targeting embedded in their business models, their slow or immaterial responses to alerts of active disinformation operations on their platforms, and their unresponsiveness to calls to support proactive prebunking, remain a threat as the country heads to the polls.
Specifically, platforms such as Twitter, WhatsApp, Tiktok and YouTube ought to do more to help in this journey towards information integrity.
For politicians seeking power, the lies can only take you so far.
The electorate is becoming smarter. Make sure your manifesto is based on reality, or else, you will promise dozens of stadia and a million jobs, and thousands of affordable houses that you will never deliver! Broken promises reduce public trust. You will lose the next election.
For the public, the rules are simple. Always ask for proof regarding any content that you receive on your phone or see on social media.
Don’t share, forward or retweet anything that you cannot verify yourself. Check with the fact-checkers. If you receive any information on your phone, stop, reflect on it and verify before you share.
Alphonce Shiundu is the Kenya editor of Africa Check and the national vice-chairman of Fumbua (www.fumbua.ke), a collaborative journalism project to keep public debate honest. Doreen Wainainah is the managing editor of PesaCheck. Africa Check and Pesacheck are members of the Fumbua project.