Will fake news sow chaos during Kenya's election? Or will voters roll their eyes and change the channel?
- By Nanjala NyabolaNanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya.
NAIROBI — Clouds of black smoke rise from overcrowded slums. Throngs of terrified civilians flee as their neighborhoods are set ablaze. Shadowy men in uniforms march through the chaos, their weapons marking them as members of an occupying force. This is not a post-apocalyptic hellscape, but a vision of Kenya in 2020 in which Raila Odinga — the current opposition leader — wins the upcoming presidential election, revokes the constitution, and declares himself president for life. “You decide if this becomes a reality on August 8th, 2017,” reads an ominous subtitle. “Don’t let this happen to Kenya.… The future of Kenya is in your hands.”
The 90-second attack ad has been viewed nearly 480,000 times on Facebook and hashed over endlessly in the Kenyan press. Its origins are mysterious; the account used to upload it — The Real Raila — is not officially associated with any political campaign, although its agenda is clear. But if we are left to wonder about the author of this dystopian imagined future, its arrival in the midst of a hard-fought presidential campaign signals clearly that Kenyan politics have entered a dangerous post-fact era.
Political lies and innuendo are hardly novel in Kenya, where tabloid websites like Tuko and Kenya Today have long trafficked in unverified rumor. But the ante has clearly been upped in recent months, with shameless fearmongering and “fake news” taking over the internet. The proliferation of false memes and fake political websites — which are shared widely over Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp — has further muddied the waters. Just last week, the BBC and CNN were both forced to disown false news reports circulating on social media that carried the networks’ logos and cited fake polling data. One recent (and real) poll found that 90 percent of Kenyans had encountered fake news in the lead-up to the general election, which pits incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and his ruling Jubilee coalition against Odinga and the opposition National Super Alliance.
The reckless, incendiary rhetoric on both sides, including claims last week by the opposition that Kenyatta plans to “overthrow the constitution and use the military to rig himself back in office,” shows signs of bleeding over into violence on election day. On Monday, Kenya’s Star newspaper reported that the election official in charge of the country’s electronic voting system had been found dead with his arm severed. No details have emerged yet about who may be responsible, but the suspicion of foul play will loom large as Kenyans prepare to head to the polls in seven days.
On paper, a developing country might seem an unlikely place for fake news — which is mostly disseminated online — to impact an election. But, in many ways, Kenya is among the ripest countries in Africa for a successful misinformation campaign. Distrust runs deep in a society scarred by successive bouts of post-election violence, the worst being in late 2007 and early 2008, when more than 1,000 people were killed in interethnic clashes. Rumor, meanwhile, has long been an important conduit for information here. During the authoritarian era of Daniel arap Moi, who was president from 1978 to 2002, the press was beholden to the state, and so people learned to take media claims with a grain of salt. The press is less fearful of antagonizing the government today, but it still self-censors on occasion and relies heavily on official accounts. It is not unusual in Kenya for a massive corruption scandal to be covered entirely through blind items, leaving audiences to guess the identities of the perpetrators.
Add to this the fact that Kenya has one of the highest rates of internet penetration in Africa — with 4.5 million active Kenyan Facebook accounts and 2 million Twitter accounts (as of 2015) — and the potential for fake news to sway the electorate is clear.
Kenyan politics is also flush with cash, attracting parasitic political consultants and public relations firms, many of them from abroad. According to the country’s independent electoral commission, this year’s poll could be the most expensive in history in per capita terms at roughly $25 per voter. And that’s just spending by the state — individual candidate spending drives the figure much higher. One senatorial candidate, Sakaja Johnson, who is also a statistician, estimated that each presidential candidate spent an average of $50 million on the last election.
Some of that money will flow to firms like Cambridge Analytica, best known for the data mining work it reportedly did for both the Donald Trump and Brexit campaigns, which was contracted by Jubilee in May. Cambridge Analytica specializes in psychometrics — the quantitative study of human behavior — but what exactly it is doing for Jubilee remains unclear. (The firm denies building psychological profiles of voters or exploiting ethnic divisions for political gain. It also denies any connection to the dystopian attack ad depicting an Odinga presidency, although rumors abound that it was involved.)
What is clear is that a highly sophisticated disinformation campaign is underway, including slickly produced video content, attack ads, and fake websites spewing false claims about candidates. These websites have been made more visible through search engine optimization, a process in which websites are tagged with highly searched terms so they outrank other search results. A Google search for “Raila Odinga” from inside Kenya, for instance, returns the “Real Raila” website — which claims the candidate will turn the country into a giant slum if he wins — ahead of his official campaign website.
Fake news not only threatens the integrity of the election; it risks sparking violence in the event of a contested outcome. In a 2008 paper, Hezron Ndunde of Egerton University argued that the Kenyan electorate’s reliance on rumor for political information was a major reason why the 2007-2008 election turned violent. Much of the violence consisted of revenge attacks for nonexistent massacres supposedly carried out against ethnic groups in distant parts of the country.
If anything, Kenyans are more reliant on rumor now than in 2007. The public is increasingly distrustful of traditional media, which are both more reluctant to take a stand — perhaps fearful that demands for accountability will prove divisive — and less inclined to provide complete coverage of important news events. The government is also the largest advertiser in traditional media outlets, and, according to a 2017 report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, it censors those outlets by threatening to withhold advertising revenue.
As traditional media have abdicated their responsibility to hold politicians accountable, they have opened the door to alternative sources of information and, sometimes, to alternative facts. Social media has been a force for good insofar as it has allowed Kenyans to correct partial or false government narratives. But it has also fueled a dangerous feedback loop wherein traditional media stories are often sourced to claims made on social media, some of which are inevitably false. As a result, a bit of misinformation online can easily become a headline item on the nightly news, resulting in a major public protest the following day.
Fake news is not only false, as the name implies, but it is also typically designed to provoke outrage or indignation in those who consume it. This is a recipe for violence in Kenya, where supporters of both major parties have little confidence in the state’s ability to manage the fallout from a highly contested election. Regardless of the official outcome, the losing party is likely to protest the result — as in 2007-2008 — and the winning party is likely to lean on the armed forces to contain the unrest, potentially triggering deadly clashes.
In some ways, Kenya is as vulnerable to electoral violence as it was in 2007. Tensions are running high after a hard-fought campaign that has already seen sporadic violence at the local level in the central part of the country. In April, the National Democratic Institute in Washington warned that Kenya’s political environment is “extremely polarized.”
But, in other ways, the political environment is more subdued than in past elections. Urban elites — who comprise the biggest portion of social media users and would be the main target of online fake news — are far more apathetic about politics today than they were in 2007. When announcing the final tally of registered voters ahead of the election, the electoral commission observed that it had struggled to hit its expected target of 6.1 million new voters, even with extended voter registration deadlines. After a long, gruesome primary season, compounded by a piercing drought and a series of national calamities in health care and education, the prevailing mood among the electorate appears to be fatigue.
Voters are also wise to the fact that politicians want to manipulate them. Another way of reading the statistic that 90 percent of Kenyans have encountered fake news is that 90 percent of Kenyans know when the news they are encountering is fake. If young people have learned one thing from the bizarre combined spectacle of the Trump and Brexit campaigns, it’s that skepticism serves the online newsreader well. The response to the “Stop Raila” attack ad, for now at least, has been more of an eye-roll than a call to arms.
Indeed, cynicism and apathy may prove to be Kenya’s salvation. Yes, social media users are still a minority — if a significant and growing one — and how they react to disinformation doesn’t tell us how the broader electorate will react. The torture and murder of Chris Musando, the Kenyan election official, clearly signals the risk of a violent election. If Kenyans keep rolling their eyes at the barrage of fake news, though, we might just be alright.
Photo credit: SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images