In April 2022, I stepped up to lead the collective project, a collaborative journalism project that brought together fact-checkers, journalists, podcasters, digital media influencers, cartoonists, and the tech community to fight false information in Kenya. The year-long project changed the way countries prepare to deal with false information around elections.
The immense opportunity to lead the collective in the fight against election mis-/disinformation in Kenya in 2022 exposed both the players and the layered gaps within our sense-making processes as a country. I did end up in the mis-dis-mal-information space partly as a result of my training as a lawyer, a podcaster (by choice), and a feminist (by necessity), all of which have been crucial tools as we set our eyes on information pollution. I eventually ended up in the information integrity space through the work I was doing with the Mine is a Comment Podcast, a platform that brings minorities together to talk about how social, political and economic decisions affect their lives.
Tackling misinformation was a fortuitous experiment to fight fake news not only around elections but also in the prevalent everyday narratives. For the first time, the misinformation community came together to collaborate and tackle the false information around elections. The community has everyone in it–journalists from independent, mainstream and community media; fact-checkers; content creators like me who were doing amazing podcasts at the time; digital media influencers; cartoonists; journalism students, and even state regulators.
Mal-mis-dis-information issues in Kenya
The desire to bring all on board and address the various strands of misinformation meant we were all coming together with the lessons learned from previous elections about how false information polluted public debate in the 2013 and 2017 elections. We wanted to create public awareness about information pollution, its effect on elections and on our country’s political hygiene, and to teach people how to spot false information, how to debunk it, and how to disrupt the networks that spread these falsehoods. Besides, we needed to be creative about engagement with the media, the public, online storytellers, the government, and social media platforms. Coming together to do these things just made sense. In short, that’s how the collective came about.
We saw Fumbua (the collective) partner with organisations such as Africa Check, Google News Initiative, and the Media Council of Kenya to offer training, including digital literacy training workshops, to the general public. What the collective did was to get the players to offer joint training, not just to media professionals and journalism practitioners, but to anyone interested in fighting false information. We needed to scale that fight, recruit more people to the cause, so that we would have a reasonable number of people pushing back against false information online.
We had targeted to reach 60 people based on our budget, but we received nearly 300 applications. In the end, we retained just over 100, but many of those who applied are still on the waiting list. We hope that when funding allows, we will give them those important digital literacy skills to navigate the information ecosystem, not just during elections, but even right now, in-between elections when false information is still spreading.
The quality of false information during the elections had several waves depending on the phase of the electoral process. With the general election set to take place on 9 August 2022, from April to July, at the height of the campaign period, a lot of the false information centred on the candidates, their qualifications and their track record. The next wave of false information came very close to the elections and seemed to cast doubt on key institutions like the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and the police, and in a way targeted the credibility of the process. The thing with this kind of dis-information is the lack of public awareness about what government institutions are doing, thus creating an information vacuum that is easily filled with false information, wild theories and dangerously unhinged opinions presented as facts.
When the results were trickling in, the electoral commission did something unprecedented. It released all the result forms from all the polling stations in the country. Anyone with an internet connection, a calculator and the patience to go through the forms, could sit down and tally the results. It is at this point that there was a surge of false information as some people declared the winners, claiming they had done a tally, even while the electoral commission was still doing the maths.
We saw verified accounts spread false information about the leading candidate. It didn’t help that media houses were doing the tallying based on their individual criteria, and so one media house would show one candidate leading, and the next media house would show the other. There was a running joke at the time that people tuned in to the station that showed that their “fifth president” was ahead.
Then, there came the useful but really ineffective advisories that social media platforms Twitter and Facebook put on posts declaring the results—they merely added a disclaimer that the official results hadn’t yet been declared. But that advisory didn’t disrupt the cycle. The falsehoods kept spreading.
We saw verified accounts spread false information about the leading candidate.
As I conclude, I must point out that what stood out for me was the relentless and consistent gender disinformation against women running for office and women with public-facing accounts like activists, political commentators and journalists. They were attacked just because of their political views. Our colleagues at Africa Check wrote about it.
How big tech handles misinformation
The collaboration with social media platforms was made possible by several of our collective members who were working with and researching the role and impact of social media platforms during the elections. These activities raised similar concerns that needed to be addressed collectively.
Meta worked with fact-checkers such as PesaCheck and Africa Check, who were part of the collective, to clean up false information on Facebook. Twitter had a partnership with Africa Check, as did Tiktok which worked with other collective members to deal with false information.
We had a lot more expectations from the platforms with regard to content moderation and taking down content spreading false information. We still need to talk.
Then we had influencers and other content creators put together very engaging content to educate the public about the risks and dangers of false information during elections. These included WOWZI, a digital marketing company and also a member of the collective. We also worked with Esther Kazungu, Njugush, Abel Mutua and Wixx Mangutha. The reason we used influencers was because, as we neared elections, politicians had recruited their army of influencers to spread false information. We had to fight fire with fire, to get influencers who were passionate about facts to help us to spread accurate information and tell the public about the dangers of false information. Our campaign with influencers was important to amplify our message about verifying messages received before sharing them.
Working collaboratively in a space such as this has its own challenges because when you work collaboratively, you have to be clear about expectations and what you bring to the table. When that is not clear, there is the risk of a member feeling underutilised. The election was also a busy period for everyone and so availability was a bit of a challenge which was understandable. There were also challenges in the form of donor funding. Donors are known to fund a lot of electoral work and this could lead to a sense of competition among members of the collective. Collaboration cures this but not with every member given that the collective was young at that point. The way forward is to cultivate trust and really build on a collaborative way to fundraise together.
As we neared elections, politicians had recruited their army of influencers to spread false information.
But to be honest, I don’t really consider these challenges as such, they are opportunities for coming up with better communication with regard to availability, expectations on both ends and how to engage with each other to build a stronger collective for the work ahead. The challenge of false information is not going away soon; we just have to be smarter about how we fight back. We are happy to see that the collaborative model is being adopted in countries where one of our partners, Africa Check, is working in Nigeria which held elections last February.
The future of combating misinformation
There is going to be a lot more training, dialogue and creative ways to tackle the information pollution we are experiencing. We will have media and digital literacy programs, campaigns against gender(ed) disinformation, and we want to also focus on holding our leaders accountable for the promises they made, not just in the counties, but also at the national government level. There’s a lot of work to be done, and I am excited about being part of it.
The challenge of misinformation and disinformation will be around for a long time. As the economy in Kenya goes through its current challenges, more people will get desperate and anxious about the future. That fear will be preyed upon by the merchants of false information, this time in rip-offs, usually phoney investment opportunities, fake property sales, and outright scams.
As the economy in Kenya goes through its current challenges, more people will get desperate and anxious about the future.
People must always remember that not all publicly available information is accurate. They must be very cautious when consuming it. It is also possible for false information to be amplified by trusted and verified sources like the media so don’t beat yourself up when you believe the information. Don’t judge yourself too harshly. Being deceived happens even to the best of our institutions because mis/dis-information is a problem across all sectors. To be safe, just stay alert.