Lazy bunch: We miss on crucial information because we don't read

Kiu Kenda Presbyterian school pupils read The Standard news paper during the the launch of The Standard Group NIE Program. [Silas Otieno, Standard]

On April 1, The Standard newspaper ran a story announcing that former US President Barack Obama would be resettling in Kenya in June for at least a year in a new diplomatic role. It was a Fool’s Day prank and we indicated that promptly, shortly after midday.

However, for days, social media went abuzz with heated debates on the imminent Obama migration. Mainstream media adopted the story and spread it while calling for public participation in discussions such as why Obama was actually moving and if it was, indeed, a good thing for him to do.

Podcasts were created to explain this new development and bloggers interrogated his motive. Within 24 hours, thousands had tweeted, retweeted or commented, in many other social media platforms, on this very exciting news.

As they fanned the flames, many, including top accounts on social media, some belonging to media houses, did not attempt any fact-checking of any kind. While information disseminated by The Standard should be trusted as a true account of happenings, responsible journalism demands that one thoroughly queries information available even on the most reliable of sources to avoid propagation of hoaxes.

After all, it was Fool’s Day and we had indicated as much.

A simple check of the new title we had assigned Obama should have sufficed. He was coming to Kenya as the “Special Envoy for US Diplomacy (SED)”. This is a non-existent title, thought up by this writer on the go. Other certainly exaggerated ideas were there as clues that the story was fictional, with “facts” cobbled up hurriedly.

Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, would for the first time ever sit in high profile political meetings. Obama’s wife Michelle coming to Kenya was in doubt. The 44th President of the US would settle outside Nairobi in counties that would help him understand devolution better (we included Mandera “where he was expected to see first-hand the intermittent threat of The Al Shabaab, thus better advising the US on best, and prompt, actions to take”). And he would be shooting a documentary, narrated by broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough and actor and voiceover guru Morgan Freeman.

It was a too-good-to-be-true story. A good read nevertheless. At the bottom of the page, we indicated it was a Fool’s Day story. That it gathered wild momentum told us that most people did not read to the last line.

Excited at the headline and maybe the first few paragraphs, enthusiastic news spreaders frantically battled to be the first to entrance the world. One after another, their targets swallowed the bait. Some sober voices tried to hush the excitement but the fire was furiously razing through a gossip-loving world.

Which makes us wonder just how much fake information is adopted as the truth and spread by those we trust most without an iota of hesitation.

On the same day, most of the local media houses pulled a prank. Oliech had been announced coach of the national football team Harambee Stars, one said. Kenyans were to be paid Sh10, 000 for every Indian house crow killed, another said. They received traction that should have cooled off soon after Fool’s Day was over, on midday of April 1. The Obama story, however, did not.

When the Covid-19 pandemic first struck, theories started flying from every corner. It was soon not possible to know which ones held water as epidemiologists differed in what seemed to be beliefs subtly laced with political inclinations. It had been generated in a lab in an act of bioterrorism, some said. A man had eaten a bat, as was his norm maybe, but this time around it did not work, another went.

Africa, due to her hot weather and obviously underdeveloped medical systems, was going to have the most casualties. Goodbye, dark continent.

Scared laypersons lost it. The US President of the time Donald Trump said this and top medics a completely different thing as people died in droves. What should have been simple compliance to rules, such as wearing of masks, became heavily contested. The world chose who to listen to whoever sounded most convenient for them, whoever told them what they wanted to hear.

Falsehoods are known to travel faster, and to excite more, than truths. American writer Mark Twain is said to have claimed that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

The Obama Fool’s Day was an opportunity to show us just how fast fabricated stories can travel. And how so many are willing to jump onto this unfortunate bandwagon without querying anything and accelerate the spread of gossip. Quick gratification at being among the first to share news has ruined trust and reliability, and intellectual querying of information.

“Why is Obama REALLY relocating to Kenya in June… this seems like one heck of a coincidence… fleeing the US?” asked a verified Twitter user called Scary Election denier, while posting a screenshot from the Further Africa website which had carried the story on April 1.

But even the website clearly indicated, as had The Standard, that the story was a Fool’s Day prank.

All kinds of scandalous allegations were quickly levelled against a man who Trump’s supporters love to have a swing at.

In Kenya, deaths of prominent people seem to excite many on social media. Gossip is loved and when negative, even more. As such, speculation of death often takes social media by storm and a few times, it is proven the said departed people are actually still around, only killed by keyboards of rather enthusiastic human grim reapers.

Not once have we had senior politicians apologising for sending condolences to colleagues’ families a little too soon. When it happens that a politician sent a peer “deepest sympathies” after the loss of a loved one, questions abound: why did you not call them directly to pass that message? Did it have to first pass through public eyes for approval? Was it not wise to first confirm the news? Are you clout-chasing?

Although it brings with it endless opportunities and possibilities, social media has been used to speed up propagation of misinformation. This has given rise to fact-checkers who, every day, are in a race to debunk lies, including nicely photoshopped images and fake websites that come up by the day deliberately to spew hate and spread propaganda.

It is well unlike in the olden days where there was no social media thus no overload of information. Every piece of news was interrogated carefully, and only travelled after all boxes were ticked by professional news tellers.

The Fool’s Day prank, apart from showing gullibility, prominently revealed that we are a lazy lot who, unconvinced with taking in a whole article, masticating slowly and then digesting it, choose to either skim over, or are content assuming that the headline, or the first paragraph, is indeed equivalent to the whole story.

For there, at the bottom of the page, we indicated that we were fooling around but a fortnight later, some readers have never scrolled all the way down, which must be really slow reading.