Digital platforms can be used to poison our politics

Megaphone Social Media Concept. [Getty Images]

The political season is upon us, and the internet and social media are awash with information about campaigns, polls conducted by various firms, and analyses on politicians or coalitions which appear likely to carry the day.

But digital spaces are fraught with risks as well as opportunities. The challenge is, do we understand the risks, while at the same time taking advantage of the opportunities?

Social media has become the online equivalent of a political marketplace, hosting the political discourse of the day across various platforms. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are the popular social media networks today.

According to the Digital 2022 Global Overview Report, 58.4 per cent of the global population (4.6 billion people) are social media users. In East Africa, 10 per cent of the population are social media users. In Kenya, 21 per cent of the population are active social media users.

Kenya boasts a rapidly growing and sophisticated digital space; hence ‘the Silicon Savanah’. Social media plays an outsized part in this growth: it plays host to social gatherings, is a place where people research everything from what is trending to possible travel destinations, and is even a growing source of news and political gossip.

Some 40 per cent of internet users surveyed in Kenya said they trust social media as a source of news. The attention seeking phenomenon has meant that ‘news’ is laced with whatever is likely to generate interest and engagement.

However, research by the Reuters Institute has revealed that 75 per cent of respondents found it difficult to differentiate between fake and real news on the internet. This is a conundrum given our voracious appetite for news and politics sourced from social media.

Indeed, this is one of the goals of misinformation and disinformation campaigns: to poison the information environment such that no one knows what is true or false and to obliterate critical thinking. This is due to the fact that just as ‘bad news travels fast’, misinformation and disinformation have an inherently greater capacity to go viral.

This can prove disastrous for democratic processes, as has been proven in numerous elections around the world. A 2018 report by Portland Africa revealed that in 10 elections across Africa between 2017 and 2018, bots were increasingly prevalent in attempting to sway public opinion and fuel negative sentiment.

Thankfully for Kenya, the Portland survey also found that two thirds of Kenyans (67 per cent) prefer to read comprehensive and detailed information over concise and summarised information; and 78 per cent prefer factual and accurate information over opinion based news.

Thus, given the overwhelming trust Kenyans have in social media as a news source, even mainstream media outlets have been known to curate ‘breaking news’ from social media. In the ensuing media frenzy, it becomes relatively easy to get caught out by information that is intended to mislead or deceive. While mainstream media has a duty to counter fake news, we as consumers also need to be more mindful of the media we consume and share.

This becomes all the more important during the political season, such as we are in now. Our digital space is replete with political messaging, manifestos, and content crafted by those who understand our digital proclivities only too well. In a world where the production of information, misinformation, and disinformation has become commercialised, we should pay careful attention to how we access and utilise digital platforms.

The writer is a governance consultant