Educate Kenyans about disinformation to reduce manipulation of voters

IEBC have disowned a letter circulating online suggesting decision to leave key election preparations forum was unilateral.

Disinformation was part and parcel of politics long before the emergence of the internet. But the internet – and specifically social media – have exacerbated the spread of disinformation in an unprecedented way. This is due to the ease of access and the potential for information to ‘trend’ or ‘go viral’ with minimal effort. As a result of this, social media has become a critical battleground for politicians and political parties.

An estimated 48.4 per cent of social media users in Kenya rely on the same platforms to get news, well above the global average of 34.2 per cent, according DataReportal. What is particularly concerning is that 75 per cent of survey respondents in Kenya are unable to differentiate between real and fake news. That said, Kenyan social media users are becoming increasingly aware and concerned about the presence of online misinformation. If left unchecked, disinformation has the potential to undermine democratic electoral processes.

Following the August 9, 2022 elections in Kenya, a trend analysis reveals the reality and seriousness of the challenge presented by disinformation, and the fact that there is a growing and lucrative marketplace for “influence operations” such as influence entrepreneurship or State-run influence. Indeed, a clear shift took place in 2022 and influence operations have been increasingly home-grown in Kenya, according to a study by Allen K and his colleagues.

At the same time, high Botometer scores have been registered, indicating inauthentic activity by bots (already since 2018, a report by Portland Africa revealed that in 10 elections across the African continent between 2017 and 2018, bots were increasingly prevalent in attempting to sway public opinion and fuel negative sentiment). Bots have been present across the political divide, suggesting some level of investment in influence operations by a cross-section of political actors. Either way, social media as a service offering in Kenya – where the cost of hashtags can reach as much as $7,000 per hashtag, according to Botometer –  has become a viable economic activity. In political circles, given the fact that the primary motivation is commercial, there is little to stop or prevent the spread of disinformation on a wide scale.

What is clear based on independent analysis on incidences of misinformation and disinformation subsequent to the August 2022 elections conducted by the Election Observation Group is that during the reporting period (October 2022 to June 2023), all reported incidents of misinformation took place on social media platforms, mainly X, Facebook, and TikTok.

It is imperative that Kenyans are sensitised on the extent of disinformation that is prevalent on the internet and social media especially with the rapid advancement of AI technology. This knowledge and sensitisation will allow the electorate to critically assess political content that they interact with on social media, and thus make informed political and electoral choices based on factual information.

While those in the international policy space have been primarily concerned about influence operations conducted by external actors in Kenya, the reality is that following the 2022 election, the country has demonstrated its own influence campaign prowess, and her position as an emerging digital state. Ironically, it may not be a bad thing that Kenya seems to enjoy an aptitude in the digital space. These skills should be put to good use in sensitising the population and countering toxic narratives and disinformation campaigns online.

Indeed, Kenya has the potential to excel in this regard. Others countries should be cognisant of the tactics observed in Kenya’s 2022 elections (similar trends have been witnessed in the US and Russia) as they are likely to be replicated elsewhere.