By Sara Jerving*
NAIROBI, Kenya — As election monitors descend on Kenya for tomorrow’s general election, one area that’s becoming increasingly difficult to scrutinize is the media landscape. Social media platforms such as WhatsApp are taking a more prominent role in how Kenyans consume their information, but are proving near impossible to track.
Some election monitors are watching the media closely, in part because it has historically played a contentious role in Kenyan elections. During the post-election violence of 2008, where some 1,100 people were killed and 650,000 displaced, the media was accused of inciting violence through the distribution of hate speech.
Now, social media has added a layer of complexity. In the weeks leading up to the election, false information about candidates has circulated online, raising questions about how much of a role this will have on the outcome of the election or whether social media could be a platform to incite violence. A recent study published by Portland Nairobi and GeoPoll found that 90 percent of Kenyans have seen or heard false news about the general election.
Quantifying the influence of that exposure, however, is not possible for monitors such as the European Union Election Observation Mission’s media monitoring campaign, according to Hannah Roberts, deputy chief observer. A team in Nairobi is gathering opinions from experts on the role of social media, but the mission can’t track it like it can traditional media outlets.
Measuring the role of social media in elections is unchartered territory for election monitors. Observation missions are intended to provide transparency to the process and recommendations to aid in future electoral processes. But social media has served as a platform to host less transparent information that is difficult to trace, and which some worry could contribute to violence.
Tomorrow, Kenyans will cast votes for the president, members of national assembly, senators, county woman members of national assembly, county governors and members of the county assembly. President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga are the main contenders for president. The two also faced off in the 2013 presidential election.
The dissemination of false information during elections is not new in Kenya, although the way it is being distributed is, according to the Portland Nairobi and GeoPoll study.
“In the past, we’ve seen it through paper leaflets distributed, SMS in the early days, in the build-up of 2007 and 2008. But with this election, it’s gone online, so we are seeing a proliferation of either sites, pages, accounts, some of them bots, and sponsored posts,” said Nanjira Sambuli, digital equality advocacy manager at the World Wide Web Foundation.
In this election, the sophistication has ratcheted up a notch. One form of false information circulating on social media attempts to visually replicate legitimate news sources. One video, shared on Twitter, starts with a generic clip of a CNN International broadcast journalist and then is edited to cut over to a voiceover announcing news that President Uhuru Kenyatta is leading in an online opinion poll.
The CNN International PR Twitter account replied in response to a copy of the video on July 27, saying: “This report on Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is fake. CNN did not produce or broadcast this story.”
Another video that mimicked BBC’s Focus on Africa program also put Kenyatta ahead in a poll. In April, a look-alike of the front page of Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper was distributed that falsely claimed that one of the candidates in the primary election had defected to another political party.
Kenyan government officials have promised to track down those who are misusing social media, calling particular attention to the administrators of WhatsApp groups. At a meeting in July on the government’s preparations for the election, National Cohesion and Integration Commission Chairman Francis Ole Kaparo said the police will have a “major crackdown” on those who misuse social media.
But tracing bad actors could be difficult, according to Judy Kimamo, Kenya project manager for Search for Common Ground, an international NGO that focuses on ending violent conflict.
“For example, you have a WhatsApp group that connects a whole county. You find that you have 4,000 messages by the time you open your phone after two hours. You are not able to monitor such a page,” said Kimamo. “Tracking to see what people are doing on a minute-by-minute basis requires a whole team of media experts. Those are things that have still not been developed.”
Monitoring the media
The media could impact the election in several ways that monitors are following. Fairness and airtime could impact the results directly. Information about the electoral process may influence if and how voters cast ballots. And as the election unfolds, media plays a key role in reactions — including the risk of possible violence.
Election monitors have well-honed strategies for following these issues in traditional media. The European Union Election Observation Mission in Kenya currently has a media monitoring unit, with 10 individuals following a number of key broadcast and print outlets. Using plastic rulers and stopwatches, among other tools, they are measuring the time and space that’s given to political parties, down to the second, and analyzing both balance and tone, among other factors.
They are also observing whether the media has adequate opportunity to comment on the electoral process and that the population has access to a variety of views through the media.
But this kind of detailed study of the role of social media hasn’t been possible. Closed WhatsApp groups have been popular ways to share information about the election, but are particularly difficult to monitor because you must be a member of them to access their contents, said Roberts. The convincing presentation of the phony news that is being distributed in platforms like this runs the danger of influencing the campaign and how people understand the process.
“People often say that an election is a lot about perceptions and confidence in the process,” she said. “If people are getting misinformation, that can affect confidence levels in an election and the perception people have of the electoral process overall and individual contenders. There is a risk that fake news can create confusion or potentially undermine a process.”
Traditional platforms are monitored within an international legal framework that outlines how the media should function during elections, but this type of framework has not been established for social media, said Marek Mracka, media analyst with the European Union Election Observation Mission.
“In social media, there is no such framework, it doesn’t really exist, so we are really trying to look into the way that people communicate, if they are actually able to communicate, and if there are any obstacles in that respect,” said Mracka. “But it’s not a framework that would be any way defined, so we are also not really focusing on it in any way that would be measurable.”
Countering false information
One way to combat false information is for authorities to provide as much information as possible on the electoral process, in many formats, so that citizens know what to expect, according to the EU.
A pre-election statement released by The Carter Center last month, noted that this wasn’t happening, and that there was a lack of education on voting day procedures.
“This is a complicated election. There are six elections on the same day,” said Don Bisson, field office director for The Carter Center. “People need to know what’s going to happen when they go into the polls; what ID do they need to bring with them, how are they going to be identified, how do they vote with six different ballots.”
After the Carter Center statement, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission has increased efforts to educate the public, Bisson said. The Carter Center doesn’t specifically monitor media in its mission.
Combatting false news will also take a re-envisioning of the traditional media outlets’ roles in society, so that they can re-establish themselves as credible sources of information, said Sambuli. This includes providing more context in reporting and fact-checking statements from politicians, rather than repeating potentially false statements.
“My worry is that it’s going to create a climate where even authoritative sources are not trusted,” she said.
One initiative to counterbalance fake news is Africa Check, a nonprofit with offices in Johannesburg, Dakar, Lagos, Nairobi and London. Founded in 2012, with funding from sources including the Shuttleworth Foundation and Omidyar Network, the organization publishes reports on false claims that are part of the public debate, which it debunks. Their work goes beyond elections, to include fact-checking figures on topics such as population growth, birth rates to teen moms, and access to electricity.
Facebook has also recognized the role of fake news in Kenya’s election and released a tool last week which helps its users in Kenya evaluate the truthfulness of news. Local media outlets have been distributing tips on how to identify fake news, including telling Kenyans to critically examine URLs, watch for unusual formatting and independently check the underlying evidence, among other tips.
False information on social media “is putting people into their own cocoons. It helps to define perceptions, stereotypes. It is increasing hate towards each other and it’s tearing apart the country,” said Kimamo. “It requires solid programming to combat.”
*Culled from DEVEX.Sara Jerving is Devex’s East Africa correspondent, based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master’s degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.