Fake news, propaganda and misinformation in a digital age

Last weekend, the social media went abuzz about a video said to have been shot at Imenti House in Nairobi.

The online buzz claimed that a man who suspected his wife was unfaithful installed CCTV cameras inside her stall. The result was a video of a woman and a young man in flagrante delicto.

By the time it was debunked as a farce, the X-rated video, which was the number one trending topic in Kenya, had been shared and searched for millions of times on different platforms, including blogs, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. Tech savvy online users later determined that the clip was in fact not shot in Kenya but in the US; and that it was originally posted on Twitter back in April, 2018.

One wonders who was behind the mischaracterisation and spread of the video, and what benefit they would have gotten from the feat beyond the distribution of lewd content. Perhaps they did it to get profitable clicks on their websites for financial gain.

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Which begs the questions: how can such occurrences be nipped in the bud in future? Is the digital world we live in too connected to counter the spread of deliberate misinformation?

The Imenti House saga illustrates how misinformation can be taken as true and take a life of its own. Some blogs even purported to have unearthed the identities of the two individuals depicted, with another going as far as purporting that the lady had committed suicide due to embarrassment.

Forms of misinformation

All forms of misinformation, including ‘fake news,’ false news, propaganda, rumours, hoaxes, conspiracy theories and disinformation, are normally used by those seeking to sway public opinion. This has been exacerbated in the dot.com era where the information spreads by the click of a button.

It is noteworthy that the deliberate mischaracterisation of information is as old as society itself. In fact, Nazi Germany had a fully-fledged ministry, run by Hitler’s most trusted henchman, Joseph Goebbels, dedicated to propaganda. This was to make sure that all public narratives were in sync with the Nazi political ideology including Aryan superiority and the inferiority of other races.

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Recently, the term “fake news” has been thrown around to describe the narratives that influenced Brexit in the UK, The US elections in 2016 and even last year’s election in Kenya. In these instances, highly sophisticated methods of misinformation and half-truths were deployed, mostly online, to influence voters to vote a certain way.

Increasingly, the strategy includes the deliberate spreading of a mixture of true and false stories to confuse the public. In this way, some true information is discredited with the false stories they sit alongside.

All of us are potential active or passive participants in misinformation. Those minded to sway public opinion through this methods often try to appeal to our most basic inclinations, identities, fears and aspirations such as appealing to our ethnic, tribal, racial, gender or intellectual prejudices.

Societal myths

We have a high affinity for these messages and ideas because they reinforce societal myths and stereotypes that are so deeply embedded within a people that it is often difficult to recognise the messages as mere propaganda.

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As such, it is not uncommon these days for journalists, media houses, bloggers, the authorities and the general public to take claims that we encounter especially through digital media as true without going the extra mile to verify their authenticity.

Several governments, including Kenya, have passed laws that make it illegal to distribute false news. However, the problem is that truth is very subjective. Even in the Imenti House saga, majority of Kenyans bought the infidelity story hook, line and sinker and thus, if they spread it, they would have been doing it believing that it is the truth.

The term “fake news” is increasingly being used and abused by the political class to single out media outlets and journalists that they do not like. For instance, the way US President Trump has labelled CNN as a fake news network paints a picture that all that is conveyed by the news network are lies. If the USA did not have such a strong press freedom and freedom of expression tradition, CNN would have been easily targeted by the government and even banned. 

In Tanzania, Jamii Forums, the most popular news and opinion website has been forced to close shop because of new government regulations requiring online platforms and blogs to pay a license fee and obtain registration from the State. In Uganda, social media is subject to a daily tax from the State as a means of reducing online connectivity among its citizens. Are we next?

Because freedom of expression and the right to information are fundamental human rights that cannot be limited, legislative safeguards are often not sufficient. As such, Government and media houses should set up programmes for new media literacy and critical thinking for journalists, bloggers, online users and citizens.

Mr Kiprono is Human Rights Lawyer. [email protected]

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