Kenya is now a few days away from the general elections. Experts have described the 2022 elections in Kenya as a “high-stake” since it involves a regime change. President Uhuru Kenyatta is expected to retire after August 9, 2022.
As the elections approach, the season of words has rented the air. As Kenya’s famous humourist, the late Wahome Mutahi, would put it; this is a season of words; big words and small words; tall words and short words; fat words and thin words; it is a season of words.
Kenyan politicians are at the tail end of their campaigns as their supporters champion them by any means necessary. Words are flying both online and offline. Sometimes, it is difficult to distinguish between truths and lies. Propaganda and disinformation have become the order of the day.
The spread of disinformation is not new in Kenyan polls. The country has experienced its share of disinformation campaigns in previous polls. Still, the most significant were the 2013 and 2017 elections, where the publication and sharing of fake news on social media were rampant.
“As Kenya nears the 2022 general elections, disinformation remains at its peak levels, both at grassroots and national levels. The availability of sophisticated technology and its ease of use has enabled various political actors to act as originators and spreaders of disinformation,” The Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet) and the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) report on Disinformation in Kenya’s Political Sphere: Actors, Pathways and Effects states.
The research is part of a regional study conducted by CIPESA that explores the nature, perpetrators, and effects of misinformation in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria, and Kenya.
There is a section of Kenyans known as “keyboard warriors” who thrive on the anonymity of digital technologies to spread unverified information like wildfire, often forming perceptions and controlling narratives. Some do it for free, but for others, it is a full-time job.
Freedom of expression and access to information
There is no doubt that Kenya is among a few African countries whose citizens enjoy the right of expression and the right to access information.
For instance, the Access to Information Act 2016, Part II, Section 4 provides that every citizen has the right of access to information held by (a)the state; and (b) another person and where that information is required for the exercise or protection of any right or fundamental freedom.
At the same time, Article 33 of the Constitution of Kenya (2010) gives robust protection to the right to freedom of expression, subject to the exclusions of Article 33(2). Article 34 protects media freedom, and Article 35 protects access to information.
Nevertheless, some individuals have taken advantage of these provisions to spread political disinformation in both physical and virtual spheres. Politicians, parties, supporters, and related entities may create and disseminate false information intended to cause harm by discrediting reputations and confusing or misdirecting voters.
In Kenya, no law clearly defines or distinguishes between misinformation and disinformation. However, it is an offence to deliberately create and spread false or misleading information in the country.
It is a crime to relay false information with the intent that such information is considered true, with or without monetary gain.
False publications and the publication of false information are punishable under the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act under Sections 22 and 23. However, these same laws can also be used to silence dissent, making it a double-edged sword.
Abuse of freedom of expression through social media
As the general elections in Kenya draw near, information dissemination tools have become vital. Initially, the mainstream media was the undisputed source of information, but with the advent of online media, the democratization of information is a new reality. Anyone and everyone is both a source and consumer of information.
Unlike the mainstream media, online media, which includes platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and blogs, is a free world that is largely unregulated and a fertile ground for disinformation and agenda-setting.
The two leading social media platforms that have the potential to spread disinformation in Kenya are Twitter and Facebook. Rarely does a day go by without a #hashtag carrying potentially dangerous information with no anchor of proof trending across timelines.
The consumption of unverified information can potentially mislead people, distort reality, and, in effect, whip up emotions of unsuspecting citizens who may have no access to alternative facts to make informed decisions.
As we have seen from past elections, stoking hatred can devastate the national fabric and the economy. The economy is just recovering from the aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, and any further instability may be detrimental to future recovery efforts.
The truth is that various forms of fake news and disinformation come at a high cost. In the 2017 post-election period, which included a rerun following the dispute over the presidential results, coordinated attacks against individuals, their parties, and political institutions were rampant. There were instances where politicians whose comments amounted to hate speech were further spread on social media.
In Kenya, the divisive 2007 campaigns had far-reaching implications as lives were lost, and many were displaced from their homes.
Further, disinformation efforts may lead to exploitation where predatory actors use fragile democracies or poor states to explore different tactics to benefit those actors or their clients.
How do we beat fake news and disinformation as elections draw near?
It is not easy to “beat” disinformation. As mentioned earlier, the channels used are online and largely unregulated. This means that the only way to beat the menace and have transparent, verifiable dissemination of information during this season is through “self and personal responsibility.”
This means that there is little to no gatekeeping when it comes to online platforms. It, therefore, falls on the shoulders of whoever plans to post something online, first to interrogate themselves and see whether what they are about to post has tangible and verifiable evidence.
What is likely to kill this nation is the habit of sharing every piece of information we get online without verification. It also falls on the shoulders of Kenyans to learn to verify any information they find online before passing it to the next person. As a cardinal rule, trust, but verify before you press the “share” button!
As the regulator of the ICT industry, the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) ‘s role in elections is threefold; coordinating mobile operators to offer quality connectivity, monitoring broadcasting operators to ensure adherence to the Programming Code concerning elections coverage and managing cyberspace to prevent misuse during this season.
The Authority has been cautioning Kenyans against falling for disinformation by ignoring unverified information online.
Lastly, the CA works with other government agencies to address hate speech, incitement, fake news, and other cybercrimes.