In the final week of May 2020, Kenya’s mainstream media suffered an avalanche of fake newspaper front pages. All the fake headlines targeted politicians. These were saved as images and circulated online on social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and Telegram.
The design work on these false headlines was near-expert quality. The text and the accompanying pictures crafted in such a way that they were jarringly alarming, and could be quickly consumed on social media, fully taking advantage of the attention economy, and the culture of reading headlines, and depending on the social media grapevine to fill in the gaps.
The mimicking of mainstream media platforms in political disinformation is not new. A lot of such methods were used in Kenya’s 2017 elections. What is new is that this time round, there was wicked finesse in the way the circulation was executed.
Every night, most mainstream media houses send out WhatsApp and Telegram broadcasts with the following day’s headlines. In the morning, they tweet images of front pages, and also post this on Facebook.
What the peddlers of the fake front pages did, was to collect the authentic front pages from the media platforms as soon as they were posted, quickly edited these, replaced the content on some front pages with their own false stories, and then re-circulated the legitimate front pages together with the false ones.
For instance, if they edited The Standard, they’d circulate the fake Standard with the authentic front pages of the Daily Nation, and The Star. If they edited the Daily Nation, they would circulate the fake Daily Nation front page with the authentic front pages of The Standard and The Star.
The editing did not touch the masthead or other stories on the front pages. It targeted only the main headline and the main image. These fakers were also careful to make sure that the fonts in the image were as identical or almost identical to the fonts used by the newspaper.
They did not want to mess with the ‘normal look’ of the newspaper. So, those waking up in the morning to a cache of photos on their social media feeds, were fooled. Some journalists too were fooled as they reshared false content targeting the media houses they work for.
By the time the media houses came out to warn readers and social media users that there were false headlines in circulation, the damage had already been done.
In faking the news, the peddlers of disinformation had won in two ways. They had managed to sow public mistrust about the credibility of the mainstream media platforms, and at the same time, tarnished the reputation of the targeted politician in a believable way.
The peddlers of false information usually count on the potentially high number of digitally illiterate people to spread the false information, in circles where media corrections can never reach.
The second motive of the political disinformation is to sow internal divisions in political parties, spread false narratives to discredit a politician and nibble at the loyalty of the politician’s supporters.
If this trend continues unchecked – perhaps encouraged by the practice of paying underground bloggers and keyboard militia— then this mode of disinformation may spawn disastrous consequences, including conflict and violence.
There are three things a reader can do to vet the accuracy of front pages circulating online, all done within a very short time, and just on your smartphone.
First, when you see a front page, with a screaming headline, which is either alarming, off-putting or excites emotions in any way, quickly check the digital platforms of mainstream media to see if the image you are seeing is similar to the front pages that the platforms have posted.
Second, try and zoom into the image. Images of authentic front pages usually have readable text on all items on the front page. You can read the puffs, the photo captions, the date and even the issue number. When you zoom in on manipulated front pages, some items are difficult to see. Usually, the only clear item is the manipulated content.
Third, ask yourself, how well do you know the mainstream platform? Can you tell for example, if the typeface has been manipulated? Also, get familiar with the news and the news cycle by following credible news sources.
Sometimes, sharing, liking or forwarding information from conspiracy theorists and known peddlers of false information litters your social media feed with dubious content, and makes you susceptible to believing falsehoods. The rule is, don’t share unless you authenticate.
What can media houses do? Media houses must be aggressive in the way they fight false information that rides on their brand. First, they must be quick and fast in putting out the accurate information. Second, whenever they detect that their content has been manipulated and fake content put out in their name, they must go out and quickly debunk the disinformation.
Third, media houses can leverage on the robust infrastructure of fact-checking organisations to find and reduce false information on online platforms, in this case, by pointing out where the false front pages are circulating.
In dealing with false information, media literacy should always be the answer. It makes it difficult to fool people and runs the peddlers of false information out of town.
Mr Shiundu is the Kenya editor of Africa Check, a fact-checking organisation