Kenya’s 2022 Political Sphere Overwhelmed by Disinformation

Written by Liz Orembo and Grace Githaiga

There is a lot of strange information going around the country, and this has been happening for a while. During the Kenya Internet Governance Forum (IGF) week, the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet) in partnership with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) held a workshop to disseminate a report on  Disinformation in Kenya’s Political Sphere: Actors, Pathways and Effects.The research is part of a regional study conducted by CIPESA, that explores the nature, perpetrators and effects of misinformation in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya.

Not long ago, a poster claiming political journalist Francis Gachuri was going to vie for a Member of parliament for Kiambaa constituency as a UDA candidate surfaced on Facebook and Twitter Kiambaa Constituency. The post was intended to demonstrate a radical shift by opinion shapers towards the party. At around the same time, a letter allegedly written by one of the closest allies of the deputy president complaining of his discontent with the party also circulated on social media. The Kenyan online space is awash with messages of clarification trying to fight the spread of misinformation. Although fake posts are usually followed by messages of clarification by the affected parties, the rate at which fake news spreads is so fast that by the time the correct message reaches the public, the damage is always done.

Some of the originators and intentional spreaders of disinformation are political actors who act for the benefit of the state and politicians at grassroot and national levels. The disinformation ecosystem is structured around the political environment and the tribal nature of Kenyan politics. The range of actors within the ecosystem includes politicians, political parties, strategists, content creators, digital platforms and applications, and citizens.

The danger of misinformation lies in the intent of the originators to radicalize and create division. False information is used to corrode public trust in democratic processes such as elections. In a country like Kenya, with a history of election unrest, disinformation has the potential to spur violence, threatening loss of lives and property.

As Kenya nears the 2022 general elections, disinformation remains at its peak levels, both at grassroot and national levels. The availability of sophisticated technology and its ease of use has enabled a wide range of political actors to act as originators and spreaders of disinformation. According to Safaricom, in the year 2017, 50% of its communications department time was spent monitoring fraud and fake information at different times

Currently, there is no law that clearly defines or distinguishes between misinformation and disinformation. However, it is an offense to deliberately create and spread false or misleading information in the country. False publications and the publication of false information are punishable under the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act under Sections 22 and 23. It is a crime to relay false information with the intent that such information is viewed as true, with or without monetary gain. However, these same laws can also be used to silence dissent, making them a double-edged sword. 

The study launched by KICTANet and CIPESA, identifies different forms of disinformation that take place both physically and online. They include deep fakes, text messages, WhatsApp messages, and physical copies such as pamphlets and fliers. These are spread through the use of keyboard armies on social media, where politicians up to the grassroots levels hire influencers and content creators to spread messages around them or against their opponents. This is done through mass brigading and document and content manipulation. The rationale is driven by the desire to get ahead politically or economically, and is fueled by an ecosystem that is fertile for the spread of this vice. 

There is a flow to how the fake news gets to the audience. Disinformation does not start with the pictures but with a plan that is part of a bigger political strategy. It starts with identifying the target audience, choosing the personnel and people to push the message, and then narrative development is done. This is followed by content development, which includes videos, pictures, or memes, and audio files. Once this is done, the content is then strategically released to the unknowing public, who, without critically analyzing the information, spread it far and wide to the wider audience. This results in diminished trust in democratic and political institutions and restricted access to reliable and diverse information. 

The weakest link is the citizen. Most innocent spreaders of misinformation are citizens with poor digital and media literacy. The majority are influenced to take mass action in favor of the originators. Therefore, the most effective way to tackle the issue is to empower the citizenry to be able to detect and respond wisely to misinformation. If the general public is not informed, it is a lost battle,  avers Wambui Wamunyu and June Okal, the study authors.

 

Misinformation, especially if it affects public processes, can also be addressed by having increased government engagement on social media as opposed to having reactive approaches. For example, the government needs to be an active contributor of accurate information considering there is a space in which disinformation thrives. This is more so where there is a lack of response that fuels rumors to spread.

Civil society should also engage with policymakers and media representatives on enhancing digital literacy and fact checking skills. Platform owners, acting as intermediaries, should increase transparency and accountability in content moderation measures and conduct cross sectoral periodic policy reviews.

 

There is a lot of strange information going around the country, and this has been happening for a while. During the Kenya Internet Governance Forum (IGF) week, the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet) in partnership with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) held a workshop to disseminate a report on  Disinformation in Kenya’s Political Sphere: Actors, Pathways and Effects.The research is part of a regional study conducted by CIPESA, that explores the nature, perpetrators and effects of misinformation in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya.

Not long ago, a poster claiming political journalist Francis Gachuri was going to vie for a Member of parliament for Kiambaa constituency as a UDA candidate surfaced on Facebook and Twitter Kiambaa Constituency. The post was intended to demonstrate a radical shift by opinion shapers towards the party. At around the same time, a letter allegedly written by one of the closest allies of the deputy president complaining of his discontent with the party also circulated on social media. The Kenyan online space is awash with messages of clarification trying to fight the spread of misinformation. Although fake posts are usually followed by messages of clarification by the affected parties, the rate at which fake news spreads is so fast that by the time the correct message reaches the public, the damage is always done.

Some of the originators and intentional spreaders of disinformation are political actors who act for the benefit of the state and politicians at grassroot and national levels. The disinformation ecosystem is structured around the political environment and the tribal nature of Kenyan politics. The range of actors within the ecosystem includes politicians, political parties, strategists, content creators, digital platforms and applications, and citizens.

The danger of misinformation lies in the intent of the originators to radicalize and create division. False information is used to corrode public trust in democratic processes such as elections. In a country like Kenya, with a history of election unrest, disinformation has the potential to spur violence, threatening loss of lives and property.

As Kenya nears the 2022 general elections, disinformation remains at its peak levels, both at grassroot and national levels. The availability of sophisticated technology and its ease of use has enabled a wide range of political actors to act as originators and spreaders of disinformation. According to Safaricom, in the year 2017, 50% of its communications department time was spent monitoring fraud and fake information at different times

Currently, there is no law that clearly defines or distinguishes between misinformation and disinformation. However, it is an offense to deliberately create and spread false or misleading information in the country. False publications and the publication of false information are punishable under the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act under Sections 22 and 23. It is a crime to relay false information with the intent that such information is viewed as true, with or without monetary gain. However, these same laws can also be used to silence dissent, making them a double-edged sword. 

 

The study launched by KICTANet and CIPESA, identifies different forms of disinformation that take place both physically and online. They include deep fakes, text messages, WhatsApp messages, and physical copies such as pamphlets and fliers. These are spread through the use of keyboard armies on social media, where politicians up to the grassroots levels hire influencers and content creators to spread messages around them or against their opponents. This is done through mass brigading and document and content manipulation. The rationale is driven by the desire to get ahead politically or economically, and is fueled by an ecosystem that is fertile for the spread of this vice. 

There is a flow to how the fake news gets to the audience. Disinformation does not start with the pictures but with a plan that is part of a bigger political strategy. It starts with identifying the target audience, choosing the personnel and people to push the message, and then narrative development is done. This is followed by content development, which includes videos, pictures, or memes, and audio files. Once this is done, the content is then strategically released to the unknowing public, who, without critically analyzing the information, spread it far and wide to the wider audience. This results in diminished trust in democratic and political institutions and restricted access to reliable and diverse information.

The weakest link is the citizen. Most innocent spreaders of misinformation are citizens with poor digital and media literacy. The majority are influenced to take mass action in favor of the originators. Therefore, the most effective way to tackle the issue is to empower the citizenry to be able to detect and respond wisely to misinformation. If the general public is not informed, it is a lost battle, avers Wambui Wamunyu and June Okal, the study authors.

Misinformation, especially if it affects public processes, can also be addressed by having increased government engagement on social media as opposed to having reactive approaches. For example, the government needs to be an active contributor of accurate information considering there is a space in which disinformation thrives. This is more so where there is a lack of response that fuels rumors to spread. 

Civil society should also engage with policymakers and media representatives on enhancing digital literacy and fact checking skills. Platform owners, acting as intermediaries, should increase transparency and accountability in content moderation measures and conduct cross sectoral periodic policy reviews.

 

By Liz Orembo, and Grace Githaiga, both of KICTANet.

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