A few years ago, Kenyans started seeing local bloggers appearing in court to answer for hateful words posted on online platforms. This was a new phenomenon in a country seemingly getting comfortable with irresponsible statements online, with no consequences. The proliferation of hate speech and public incitement on social media platforms during the 2013 election rightly necessitated a corresponding shift in law enforcement. But with the rising government crackdown on controversial bloggers, a topic that quickly took centre stage in public debates was: “What constitutes unwarranted censorship and what exactly, according to the laws of Kenya, are the limits of free speech?”
Today, many of the bloggers have toned down on personal attacks and resorted to more nuanced ways of dividing the nation -- Fake News. The challenge for both public and private corporations has been how to deal with propaganda and misinformation that is now the cancer online.
The days following the August 8 election and now leading up to the fresh polls on October 26 provide a classic context where this has played out. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has understandably been at the centre of public attention and scrutiny. The commission has also been the target for both constructive criticism and malicious propaganda. A number of examples jump to mind if you look at some of the trending topics online in the wake of the August 8 polls. A day before, a story started trending that IEBC chairperson Wafula Chebukati feared for his life. This was followed by claims that the State would switch off the KIEMS kits on Election Day, and later on reports emerged that ballot boxes were found in a matatu at Greenspan Mall.
The common thread in these and many similar incidents is that time has proven them all patently false. There has also been a rise and persistence in personal attacks on commissioners and members of the secretariat. Some have been ridiculed and been the subjects of stories that were not only verifiably false, but would constitute character assassination. The episode triggered by Commissioner Roselyn Akombe’s brief trip to the US shortly after the August 8 polls best illustrates this point. Immediately after her departure, stories started trending on social media that she feared for her life and had “fled” the country.
Social media warriors
Some bloggers stretched their imagination by putting words in Dr Akombe’s mouth, claiming that she had left the country because she “no longer wanted to be part of a compromised electoral system.” The commissioner jetted back into the country a week later, and the bloggers got unusually quiet. What stands out in all of these and more recent examples is that none of the accredited journalists and reputable media houses picked up the stories; mainstream media was quiet about the stories, and rightly so. The reporters had done their homework and found no basis for the claims, so the stories died the death of a thousand social media rebuttals.
However, the fact that the truth will always prevail doesn’t excuse the need to still work together against fake news. While I commend the mainstream media for exercising restraint before publishing blatant propaganda, there’s still much left to be desired. Ignoring fake news when thousands, and even millions, of Kenyans are falling for it makes us somehow culpable.
What happened to fact-checking? Isn’t reporting on the crime of misinformation just as important as reporting on the crime of embezzlement of public funds? I would think both scenarios warrant similar public outrage and accountability. If the work of mainstream media is to inform and enlighten the public, especially when it is in the interest of public well-being and economic progress to do so, actively exposing fake news is an essential part of this responsibility. Exposing fake news ought to be a public service, no less important than reporting on get-rich-quick scams. In the meantime, the onus is on those entrusted with the resources and channels of public communications, myself included, to work together to ensure that there is more responsibility over what is shared and exchanged, especially on social media platforms. Beyond this merely being a challenge for professional public relations and corporate communication experts, it is a challenge for each Kenyan.
When people consume information without verifying and double checking the source of that information, the whole country loses. The proliferation of fake news in Kenya is a symptom of the reality that we have left the responsibility of truth to the few elite groups, personalities and “influencers”. This is definitely not a sign of a progressive democracy. Albert Einstein once said: “If I were to remain silent, I'd be guilty of complicity.” Inaction about fake news is as bad as publishing that fake news.
Ms Mutemi is Manager, Corporate Affairs, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.