Kenyans could borrow a lesson or two from the late Amilcar Cabral. The Guinea Bissau leader often rallied the independence movement with the phrase, “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories”. Kenya is caught in a perfect storm of personal integrity, commercial and political interests. Fake news, misinformation and disinformation leaps out at us from all outlets. With just under five weeks to go to the elections, it is difficult to know what is the truth about anything political. If this wasn’t bad enough, emotions are also high.
We have mastered the blood sport called “politricks” and become experts in the art of disinformation. In the last 90 days alone, we have discovered no less than five sensational stories were untrue. Our opinions are increasingly becoming untrustworthy. It seems to me that there are three reasons why this is happening.
Firstly, we don’t verify and own the information we are passing on to each other. Once we type the magical words “sent as received” we then proceed to share dozens of sensational half-truths, innuendos and downright lies. We get some laughs at the expense of our targets but in so doing, we cheapen our own credibility. The greater cost is we also distract each other from what is really going on.
Secondly, fake news and websites are being generated by e-hustlers in search of advertising and communications contracts and media outlets in search of sales. All they care is that you click on the links, forward their posts and buy their news. They then sell that to the advertising companies for contracts worth hundreds of thousands of shillings. The national vice here is lie sensationally, it pays.
Thirdly, the politricians and their communications teams want you to get mad, literally. Mad enough to come out, campaign and vote against their opponents. The formula is simple. Watch your opponent very closely. Ignore the issues, just focus on their identity. Find something that undermines their personal credibility, exaggerate it into a major character flaw and pull them down in full view of the public. The practice is literally assassinating characters on all sides and scorching the political landscape.
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In fact, it has got so inhuman that humans are not really needed anymore. Just before Christmas, I noticed 300 new twitter followers. Most accounts had no photos, had never tweeted and had roughly the same number of people they followed and followers. My ego told me to ignore them, the more followers the better.
My soul argued otherwise. Even cockroaches in our kitchens are a sick form of flattery. Keeping them would turn out bad, my sixth sense argued. They were all deleted. I had discovered web based robots or bots as they are called. Oddly enough, these software applications resemble the botfly.
The larva of a botfly is a parasite that lives in animal stomachs. These algorithm created bot accounts are artificially created to parasitically flood your timeline and falsely boost your followers. There are companies that specialise in this. Politricians globally have also discovered that lying on a mass scale is not that expensive. Last year, over 60 per cent of North Americans believed made up news about their elections.
It’s got so bad, that two months ago, the inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee warned the world about its dangers. Neither autocratic state control or citizens tuning out and leaving groups will be effective in this context. We can all do better by looking more closely at the authors, sources and dates of stories, reading beyond the headlines, reviewing our own biases and verifying the stories with authoritative individuals or agencies.
Stopping a human or technological bot in your community is easy. Reflect on all the people in your life that are regularly posting inflammatory, divisive and misleading comments. We all have one or two in our lives now. Take a pen now and write down their names. Challenge them by simply saying, “Lies or half-truths are no longer acceptable in my presence.”
The wise ones will tell us, real blindness is in the mind, not in the absence or presence of our eyes. Protect your sight people.
- Mr Houghton writes in a personal capacity. He is Society for International Development Associate Director. @irunguhoughton