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Kenya’s fake news epidemic adds to electoral violence fears

By Mark Anderson in Narok
Posted on Monday, 31 July 2017 15:28

In this economically vital part of Kenya, tensions are rising between political supporters ahead of the country’s general election on 8 August. Here, the prospect of electoral violence is among the highest in the country, according to independent government-funded agencies.

Kenya’s national vote will see 19.6 million electors chose between 14,523 candidates – more than ever before. The presidential race pits President Uhuru Kenyatta against long-time opposition leader Raila Odinga. But it is tensions around local races, which are important because of Kenya’s devolution of government, that have got observers worried.

As in the US and Europe, in Kenya the rise of social media has changed the way election campaigns are run.

“Social media – Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp – is really helping the aspirants,” says James Nakola, 31, chairman of YouthLink Narok, a local youth organisation. Nakola says politicians use social media metrics to see how many supporters they have. “But social media is 50% true and 50% false,” he adds.

The prevalence of fake news and hate speech on social media is influencing how voters assess the likelihood that their candidates will win. About 90% of Kenyans have seen fake news in this year’s campaign, according to a survey by GeoPoll and Portland.

Last week, two fake news segments that were purported to have been aired on the BBC and CNN went viral. Both tried to spread the claim that new opinion polls had been released showing that Kenyatta will handily beat Odinga.

“The whole point of these fake polls is to persuade people that they’re on the winning side,” says Charles Hornby, author of Kenya: A History Since Independence. “They’re trying to persuade people that their respective candidates are going to win.”

But if the result is significantly different to what is anticipated, violence could break out around the perception that the election has been rigged, experts say.

Another post on Facebook that went viral said that 3.5m ballot papers that had been marked in favour of Kenyatta were being stored at an army barracks in Nairobi. “We are asking patriotic Kenyans to share this message widely,” it said.

“This fake news is horrible,” says Hassan Mohamed, head of Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), a government agency founded after the 2007 post-election crisis. “The whole idea is just to scare people and increase voter turnout – that’s happening a lot.”

One major challenge is that many Kenyans don’t understand what an authentic news source should look like. “We have that problem,” Mohamed says. “People have not matured to that level where they can differentiate between fake and real news.”

Facebook took out full-page ads in national newspapers as part of a campaign to educate the electorate about fake news in the hope that it won’t spread.

Secret weapon

Some Kenyans are wondering if Cambridge Analytica, a British company that worked with President Donald Trump’s campaign in the US and the ‘Leave’ campaign in the Brexit vote in the UK, could be behind the spread of fake news in the run-up to the polls. While the company proudly touts its role in Kenyatta’s election in the country’s last election, it has been silent about media reports that it is involved in his campaign this time around.

Privacy International, a UK-based charity, has written to Cambridge Analytica asking for more information about its role in Kenya’s election.

“If they’re operating like they are elsewhere, it would be essentially doing a large-scale survey and original data gathering,” says Claire Lauterbach, head of research and investigations at Privacy International. “That’s what I understand to be the case in Kenya, but Cambridge Analytica hasn’t confirmed anything about exactly what their model is, what data sources they would be gathering and using.”

Cambridge Analytica did not respond to a request for comment on its role in Kenya’s election campaign.

Hate speech worries

Many Kenyans are worried that social media has created a new platform for hate speech. There are 10 pending hate speech lawsuits, all of which involve social media, according to the NCIC.

One woman took to Facebook to advocate for the genocide of the Kikuyu ethnic group, who are perceived to be the richest in the country. “She said if she knew when the Kikiyus were coming from Central Africa, she would have used a nuclear bomb to finish them,” the NCIC’s Mohamed says.

The NCIC has hired a team of five social media monitors to work alongside the national police’s cyber crimes unit. “It’s just a drop in the ocean,” Mohamed says. “The problem is the finances. You also need a lot of software, which is very expensive.”

Moving forward, new rules and regulations should be adopted to combat the misuse of social media, says Andrew Limo, spokesman for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, Kenya’s electoral body. “Nobody has brought in any legislation about social media,” he says. “We haven’t understood how powerful it can be.”

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