Kenyans go to the polls for the second time this Thursday to stage a redo of the country’s presidential election in August. In the months leading up to the initial vote, Kenyans faced a barrage of misleading information through print, TV, radio, and social media. The atmosphere, fraught with memories of violence during 2007 presidential election, peaked with the torture and murder of an election official just days before the polls opened.
Fake news played at least a small part in escalating the tension: A US “embassy cable” circulating on WhatsApp predicted celebratory violence if Raila Odinga, the major opposition candidate, won. Within weeks, Kenya’s Supreme Court nullified the win by incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, and Odinga declared he would not participate in a re-run and urged his supporters to boycott the second vote.
Days before the August election, Facebook rolled out an educational tool to help Kenyan users spot fake news: quick tips for spotting fake news, such as, “be skeptical of headlines” or “some stories are intentionally false.” Facebook is an important information channel in Kenya, reaching six million people, out of an estimated 37.7 million internet users, and Kenyans desperately needed the critical-thinking skills to better navigate misinformation. But the platform’s last-minute tool paled in comparison with the long and contentious election run-up. As deputy editor of the fact-checking platform Africa Check, Lee Mwiti, observed, “By the time [the Facebook initiative] launched, misinformation had run its course.”
In Kenya, misinformation during elections is a recurring problem. A government commission report on the 2007 elections pinpointed partisanship, hate-speech, and misinformation in media (mainly via radio) as key factors inciting post-election violence. Kenya’s ethnic rivalries, stoked by colonial powers, date back to before the country’s independence. Violence after the 2007 elections, in which over a thousand people died, made clear that the divisions, inflamed by economic and land inequality, had grown into a dangerous tribalism. Social media exacerbates these long-standing divisions, because it typically strengthens group identity; trust on social networks often depends on human relationships rather than accuracy of information. As behavioral economist Cass Sunstein found in his work on conspiracy theories, arguments from perceived outsiders usually lack the credibility to reduce polarization.
This year, false allegations surfaced of political party defections, and incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta hired Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that stimulated support for President Trump’s election and the Brexit campaign in the UK, to influence voters. An early sign that fake news would play a role in the election came in February, when the hashtag #SalomeDivorcesPhaRAO trended on Kenyan social media networks amid accusations that Kalonzo Musyoka, leader of the Wiper Democratic Movement-Kenya had defected to the rival Jubilee political party. While people traded memes or shared the story, many didn’t realize the story was false.
What followed, in print and online, included everything from exaggerated accusations to fake news falsely attributed to the BBC and CNN. Kenyan fake news sites often hire writers to provide and share false “supporting evidence,” Mwiti said. Many of the fake stories, he added, circulated on Kenya’s thriving blogosphere and on social media.
Misinformation also circulated in print. In April, the day of local elections in Busia, many Kenyans were surprised that morning when they saw copies of Daily Nation proclaiming that Paul Otuoma, a candidate in the Orange Democratic Movement primaries, had defected to the rival Jubilee party. As in the case of #SalomeDivorcesPhaRAO, Otuoma had not defected, and the leaflets were a dupe. It was the biggest fake story to date.
Since August, protests have raged on between the opposition, Kenyatta supporters, and the police. Human Rights Watch reports between 33 and 50 deaths related to the elections since August. Even with the presence of fact-checking tools on Facebook, misinformation continues to spread. This past month, photos depicting supposedly new acts of violence went viral on WhatsApp and Facebook. Many of these photos—such as one depicting the bodies of five dead individuals—turned out to be from the 2007 elections.
It’s difficult to measure the scope of wrong information reaching voters, and the impact it had on them; researchers are just beginning to put together tools and flags for fighting disinformation even as the problem charges forward. A pre-election study by the Portland consultancy firm found that most Kenyans want trustworthy coverage, but that a third of Kenyans are unable to consistently access accurate information about elections. The same survey indicated that most Kenyans believe they can spot fake news; 90 percent of Kenyans reported they had seen “deliberate” misinformation.
Recent efforts by Facebook also include a third-party fact checking initiative, funding for projects that strengthen ties between communities and journalists, and preliminary attempts to support media literacy initiatives. Over the long term, these initiatives represent a much more robust approach to an increasingly wicked problem.
But quick tech solutions alone are no substitute for media literacy. Making media literacy work depends on understanding communities and developing usable tools. The danger of widespread misinformation is made stronger by encrypted apps like WhatsApp and data targeting services like Cambridge Analytica. Platforms cannot solve this; users themselves need the tools to discern quality of information. Successful media literacy programs are based on peer-to-peer learning and civic engagement leveraging positive aspects of group identity. Facebook’s tips for Kenyan users were a quick solution, but media literacy—a combination of critical thinking about information and the ability to construct reliable mediated messages—is anything but fast.
Organizations like UNESCO, the Centre for Media and Information Literacy in Kenya, and others began working well before the elections on programs and curricula to help improve digital literacy and critical thinking skills. Jaco du Toit, Advisor for Communication & Information at the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa, said that UNESCO’s Kenya program pushed for a national media and information literacy policy and strategy, and created curricula for classrooms across the country. While UNESCO focused on schools, Du Toit believes tech can play a role in media literacy efforts. Tapping into ongoing efforts by organizations that understand the Kenyan context and have already made headway will significantly improve any attempts by social media companies to bolster media literacy.
It may take a long time, but evidence shows media literacy can be a powerful force for positive social change. Effective media literacy training triggers personal transformation, inspiring people to share new skills with peers and confront personal biases. Group identity, rather than fueling conspiracy, can reinforce a virtuous cycle of critical consumption of information.Tara Susman-Peña and Bebe Santa-Wood are the authors of this article. Bebe Santa-Wood @bsantawood, is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, specializing in Human Rights and Communications. Tara Susman-Peña is senior technical advisor in the Center for Applied Learning & Impact (CALI) and the Information & Media practice at IREX.