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Fake news: Before you make the juicy news go viral on social media, please pause and verify the source

By Ted Malanda | December 25th 2020

Will Sonko’s impeachment diminish his base? Why do we fall for fake news on social media? Which news will define 2021? The Nairobian spoke to Africa Check Kenya Editor (pictured above), Alphonce Shiundu.

How can media consumers identify fake news?
The quickest way is to ask one fundamental question: Where is the proof and how credible is the proof? There are freely available tools that they can use to check whether a picture has been photoshopped, or used with false context, or even whether a million people can fit in Uhuru Park.

For health claims about miracle diets or cures, it is better to check with your doctor, and not to trust an anonymous post about how jackfruit cures cancer, or how washing your eyes with battery acid can cure an eye infection. If it gets complex, they can always check with fact-checkers at Africa Check via Twitter @AfricaCheck or on WhatsApp on 254 729 305 650.

Like gossip, fake news is juicy and addictive. Would you say it is driving consumers away from mainstream to social media?
Yes, the gossipy viral nature of false information does play well to social media audiences, with their short attention spans and often uncritical news consumption.

Fake news can be extremely hurtful to innocent people. Should it be criminalised?
No, criminalising the spreading of false information may be useless in the end, given the borderless nature of the internet. What will digital enforcement look like? Who will you penalise the social media platforms on which the falsehood is spread or the individual user? What happens if that user is based in Kiribati, and is posting falsehoods, about say, Kenya, on a platform domiciled in the US? How do you navigate multiple jurisdictions?

How then do we handle this?
Building the digital and media literacy skills of the public is a better approach, because it allows people to vet the information on their own and call out mis/disinformation. There are already laws that deal with libel, defamation, hate speech and even fraud. We don’t need to jail someone for retweeting the false claim that smoking bhang cures measles in children, or that alcohol cures Covid-19! Both these claims could cause real harm, but jail or fines should not be the solution.

Never was there a bigger purveyor of lies and fake news than Donald Trump, don’t you think?
Yes, by October 2020, he had made over 25,653 false or misleading claims, which our fact-checking colleagues at the Washington Post have documented in their publicly available database. That’s definitely off-the-charts.

Why the hell was/is he so popular, lies and all?
Spreading falsehoods may be part of his messaging strategy, and as a showman, I think it is in his personality to exaggerate or understate, to an extent that he misleads. There are many facets that determine political support for an incumbent president in a country such as the US, with its diversity and history. It is not always just about facts.

What would make citizens of a superpower to believe his lies and half-truths?
First, they may not have the critical thinking skills and the research skills needed to vet the information using publicly available data. Second, some of his claims are about twisting the truth, you know, like claiming Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Third, on Twitter, where Trump reigns supreme, fewer people are likely to fact-check anything.

Former Nairobi governor Mike Sonko was, like Trump, a showman. Will his impeachment diminish his following?
It depends on how he plays it out, and who his opponents are and what message they will be sending to the people, vis-à-vis Sonko’s. There’s also that little matter about political alignment ahead of the BBI referendum and the 2022 elections. At this stage, we just don’t know.

To what extent is fake news and mis/disinformation a political problem in Kenya?
Twice, the ruling party in Kenya used Cambridge Analytica to pollute the information ecosystem during the electoral season. We have seen some senior politicians and their sidekicks actively borrowing from the Trump template, of calling any coverage that is not sympathetic to their cause as “fake news”.

To what extent will fake news influence the 2022 election campaigns?
Just like in 2013 and in 2017, I predict that we’ll see a lot of false stories about political figures that will either make their supporters switch sides, or keep off the vote. There is a likelihood that the mis/disinformation may end up with shades of hate speech and exacerbate political polarisation to dangerous levels.

As a media manager, how should universities train the journalist for the future?
The emphasis should be on skills. It is useless to have a graduate with a degree, a Masters or even a PhD, who cannot write a news story for print, digital and broadcast platforms. Many media houses in Kenya are pursuing newsroom convergence.

They are interested in multi-skilled journalists with very thorough research skills. Given the quality of interns that I saw when I worked in mainstream media houses in Kenya, I think a journalism curriculum that emphasises on skills, competence and intellectual grounding will put future journalists on the path to make a living without having to rely on their being employed in a media house. Great content will always have buyers.

A survey by Media Council of Kenya says majority of Kenyans access news through television, and radio. Social media is a distant third. What do you make of it?
I think that’s fair, because we are largely a rural economy. Similar research by the BBC and by the Reuters Institute of Journalism yielded results which showed radio and TV were still dominant sources of news to the people. Also, in Kenya, 75% of the population are under 35 years.

Again, 9.9 million people who have access to the internet in Kenya, about 70% are young people under 35. A lot more research is needed on the news consumption behaviour of this demographic in order to efficiently target them, give them news in an accessible format and monetise the content. It will be useful, for example, to know the percentage of people in rural areas who access news via social media.

Do you envisage a future with nothing to wrap meat because newspapers will be dead?
Not in my lifetime.

In your view, which news will define 2021?
I think the BBI referendum, the Nairobi gubernatorial by-election, the 2022 succession politics, and Covid-19. I also anticipate a lot of mindboggling incompetence in the administration of the Covid-19 vaccine, if the ministry of Health finally gets down to it. I won’t be surprised if a scandal breaks out that vaccine cash was swindled, or there were kickbacks around it. Covid-19 has also taught me to expect a wild-card.

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