Kenya grapples with fake news as women, politicians take the hit

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Victor Bwire - Media Council of Kenya, Mwanaisha Chidzuga - News Anchor, K24 TV and a sign language interpreter during the 'Fake News' gender forum at Alliance Francaise in Nairobi.

‘Forwarded as received’ is one of the most common statements on WhatsApp messages probably intended to quash any doubts in the recipient’s mind that it could be ‘Fake News’.

According to Dr. Jane Thuo, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, social media has made it easier for spread of fake news by use of bait headlines. “Last year, Kenya was downgraded because of the spread of fake news,” Dr. Thuo said citing a global ranking on internet freedom.

Another trend that has slowly become popular in Kenya is use of edited photos, videos or audio to either discredit the individual or the company; get monetary or political gains; for satire/parody or direct traffic to one’s website or blog.

“It is published with the intent to mislead…often with sensationalist, exaggerated or patently false headlines that grab attention,” a recent study by the Association of Women in Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK) says. The research also affirms that such information can be very difficult to correct and may have lasting effects even after it is discredited as it may continue to influence beliefs and attitudes even after it is debunked.

On 14th May, AWMIK in partnership with Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a German political foundation, held a forum with panelists from local universities, Media Council of Kenya (MCK) and journalists to underscore effects of fake news in Kenya.

When asked to define fake news, Victor Bwire, Head of Media Development and Strategy at MCK, said though the term is an oxymoron it is the biggest challenge facing media houses across the world. “Once it is fake, it cannot be news. News is verifiable information but the issue of propaganda is real, and it is nothing new,” he said. “The difference between what we call fake news and journalistic errors is the motive. In the case of fake news, someone intentionally generates false information with a business or political motive.”

According to him, people knowingly spread misinformation on Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms without verifying the source or authenticity.A recent report from the BBC revealed that Kenyans and Nigerians ‘underestimate their ability to spot fake news’ and mostly share it because emotion trumps reason, to get validation (being the first to share news amongst friends) and even out of a false sense of civic duty.

Bwire further noted that misinformation threatens to disrepute not only individuals and media houses but also top corporates and government institutions.He questioned why the blame is placed squarely on the youth who are seen to be the ones mostly online yet they are not always the benefactors.“Is it really true that it is the youth that are propagating ‘fake news’? The youth are too broke to afford bundles. Perpetuators of fake news tend to be educated people who know full well, how to use technology and the effects of fake news in framing narratives,” he added.

Following the U.S. election in 2016 where it emerged that there may have been Russian influence through the use of what the New York Times calls ‘disseminated propaganda’, some psychologists have it that people are mostly duped not knowing what is real or fake.

“One group claims that our ability to reason is hijacked by our partisan convictions: that is, we’re prone to rationalization. The other group — to which the two of us belong — claims that the problem is that we often fail to exercise our critical faculties: that is, we’re mentally lazy,” the NYT report says. In Kenya, the use of ‘fake news’ came to the fore during the 2017 general elections.

This article was first published by Rachel Ombaka  on Citizen Digital - a publication of Royal Media Services.