Fake news has reared its ugly head in elections again—this time in Kenya. As East Africa’s most tech-savvy country went to the polls on August 8, its citizens were inundated with fake news that colored the campaign season and now threatens hard-won gains to prevent post-election violence.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his primary challenger, Raila Odinga, maintained large followings throughout the campaign season, and went to the polls with a razor-thin margin of popular support between them. As of August 10, Kenyatta claimed a strong lead, though Odinga casts doubt on those numbers.
An overwhelming majority of Kenyans encountered inaccurate news about both candidates during the run-up to the elections, one recent poll found, and nearly all Kenyans surveyed reported that the inaccuracies were deliberate.
In light of Kenya’s history, the aftermath of the country’s elections is arguably more important than the contest itself—in 2007, violence erupted after the results were announced, continuing for nearly two months and leading to more than 1,100 deaths. Now, the waiting begins, and early reports bear a concerning likeness to 2007: at least three people were killed by police amid opposition protests across the country.
In Kenya’s vibrant media landscape, biased or sensationalized news is not new. However, the rise of purposely false and politically motivated stories, spread through platforms like Twitter and WhatsApp, has worrying implications for the what is already a tense post-election period in Kenya. The real danger of the fake news phenomenon is the unknowns; could fake news, spread across the country via social media, incite violence?
Kenyatta and Odinga have both been targeted by fake news reports about their polling numbers and campaign scandals. Scaremongering about the stakes of the election—encapsulated in a viral attack ad picturing Kenya as a dystopian dictatorship under Odinga, should he win—put thousands on edge.
While Kenyatta, as the incumbent, fights for a second term, Odinga has stood for the presidency on four separate—and to date unsuccessful—occasions.
After the 2007 post-election violence, Kenyans overwhelmingly approved a new constitution that devolved power to local authorities in an attempt to prevent future violence. Also in 2010, the International Criminal Court indicted then-Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and then-Education Minister (now Deputy President) William Ruto for their roles in the 2007 violence; the case was later withdrawn. The 2013 presidential election was peaceful, if imperfect, and reports from voting on August 8 suggested that election day was peaceful.
The 2017 elections and their aftermath are critical to Kenya’s future. Kenyans went to the polls, often waiting hours in line, seeking solutions to vital issues of uneven economic growth, crippling corruption and entrenched patronage networks, land and resource allocation, and sustained security threats. Given the stakes, the fake news phenomenon and the post-election violence it might engender could not come at a worse time for the country.
Kenya has a commendable, if imperfect, democratic record since it transitioned to multiparty elections in the 1990s. Despite some restrictions in practice, the country’s constitution lays out a series of important press protections. Kenya’s media environment is considered “partly free” by Freedom House, and it far outperforms its neighbors Somalia and Ethiopia. In the Freedom House index that considers both political rights and civil liberties, Kenya leads East Africa.
However, in an ironic twist of fate, it is exactly this openness that allows fake news to flourish. In neighboring Uganda and Ethiopia, and in nearby Rwanda, the state maintains a stranglehold on each country’s press. In Ethiopia, both cellular and Internet services are intermittently cut to areas experiencing unrest. It is no coincidence that there were no reports of fake news amid Rwandan presidential elections earlier in August.
For Kenya, a country with an almost 50 percent Internet penetration rate, and where nearly everyone owns a mobile phone, the prospects are high for a fake news story to reverberate across the country through social media before it can be debunked.
Social media—including Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp—are obvious culprits for magnifying the spread of fake news in Kenya. However, the practice has increasingly affected mainstream and traditional news outlets, too. A series of misleading websites with falsified stories and concealed author identities, many of which convincingly imitate reputable mainstream news organizations, cropped up in the run-up to the election. In addition, serious forgeries and imitations—including of Kenya’s Daily Nation, CNN, and BBC—have also spread. Even the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace was forced to issue a formal denunciation after a forged letter circulated with its logo. A similar counterfeit forced the Dutch ambassador to Kenya to denounce what looked like a Dutch-sponsored report on corruption in Odinga’s campaign.
On the bright side, most Kenyans are astute news consumers; their most trustworthy sources of media are traditional mediums like television, radio, and newspapers, and they view news from social media with a more skeptical eye.
Despite being more easily manipulated, social media have been important tools for Kenyan candidates at the regional and local levels—particularly those with smaller advertising budgets who are nevertheless seeking to share their visions and connect with voters. Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter remain popular and inexpensive platforms for advertising and sharing news, which also makes them key targets for spreading fake news.
Given the unprecedented number of independent candidates who competed for parliamentary positions in this year’s election, the reliance on cheaper sources of information like social media or word of mouth—all of which can be more easily manipulated by fake news—is not going away any time soon.
Kelsey Lilley is associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Follow her on Twitter @KelseyDegen.