Disinformation has been part and parcel of politics since long before the emergence of the internet or social media. That politicians engage in smear campaigns or brazen self-promotion does not elicit much surprise.
The internet, and by extension social media, have exacerbated the spread of disinformation due to ease of access and the potential for information to trend or ‘go viral’ with minimal effort. As a result of this trend, in the political arena, social media has rapidly become a critical battleground for politicians and political parties, with some platforms acting as a virtual town square.
Research carried out by MIT Sloan researchers reveals that false rumours spread faster and wider than true information: ‘ … they found that falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter (now X) than the truth, and reach their first 1500 people six times faster’. This research also went on to uncover the fact that although bots tend to spread truth and falsehoods at the same rate, it was in fact people who were primarily responsible for hitting retweet on false information.
From a global perspective, large portions of social media users globally admit that they do not trust social platforms as a source of news. The situation in Kenya is different, with 48.4 per cent of social media users turning to social media as a source of news, well above the global average of 34.2 per cent. At the same time, previous research found that 75 per cent of survey respondents in Kenya found it difficult to differentiate between fake and real news on the internet. This creates a significant challenge: while almost half of social media users rely on social media as a source of news, 75 per cent are unable to differentiate between real and fake news, and are therefore highly susceptible to disinformation and misinformation. That being said, Kenyan social media users are becoming increasingly aware and concerned about the presence of online misinformation. A significant 72.2 per cent of social media users in the country, the second highest in the world, expressed concern about the levels of online misinformation.
The adage that says, ‘A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on’ foretold the situation on social media, as confirmed by the researchers at MIT Sloan. What is most troubling, and indeed dangerous, about inauthentic information on social media is not only that it has the capacity to mislead or misinform, but, by the very fact of being false, it is much more likely to be retweeted or circulated, and at a much higher rate.
Within the context of political mobilisation and elections, the inability to discern fake news from real creates a situation whereby a significant number of Kenyans can easily be influenced by information on social media that may have been designed to mislead or misinform. A 2018 report by Portland Africa revealed that in 10 elections across the African continent between 2017 and 2018, bots were increasingly prevalent in attempting to sway public opinion and/or fuel negative sentiment.
With access to the internet and social media proliferating in Kenya and across the continent, this state of affairs has the potential to seriously infiltrate and undermine democratic electoral processes if left unchecked. As of early 2023, Kenya had an internet penetration rate of 32.7 per cent, an increase of 8 per cent from the previous year. Taken in conjunction with the proliferation of smart phones, this is a clear indicator that many more Kenyans gain access to the internet (and therefore social media) each year. Thus, an increasing number of Kenyans are being exposed to the challenge presented by disinformation.
Kenya’s 2022 Elections
Following the 9 August 2022 general election in Kenya, a trend analysis reveals the reality and seriousness of the challenge presented by disinformation, and the fact that there is a growing and lucrative marketplace for influence operations. A study conducted by the Institute for Security Studies over the August 2022 campaign period found that influence operations were primarily indigenous. This may come as a surprise to many given that external actors are known to have been active in Kenya during the 2013 and 2017 elections, as evidenced by the Cambridge Analytica revelations. A clear shift took place in 2022, and influence operations were more homegrown, demonstrating that this capacity has been developed locally. At the same time, high Botometer scores were registered, indicating inauthentic activity by bots. These were present across the political divide, suggesting some level of investment in influence operations by a cross-section of political actors.
A clear shift took place in 2022, and influence operations were more homegrown, demonstrating that this capacity has been developed locally.
The study also found that Kenya represents a growing market for online influence. The rationale for these influence operations is less ideological, but primarily for commercial or political purposes. For example, it was found that a hashtag could cost a client anywhere between USD$770 and USD7, 000. As a result of these newfound and potentially lucrative opportunities, and the entrepreneurial spirit for which Kenya is well known, product influencers repurposed their activities during the election period, acting as amplifiers for influence operations. Hence, social media as a service offering has become a viable economic activity. In political circles, there is little to stop or prevent the spread of disinformation on a wide scale given the fact that the primary motivation is commercial.
Indeed, independent analysis on incidences of misinformation and disinformation conducted by the Election Observation Group (ELOG) subsequent to the August 2022 elections observed that during the reporting period (October 2022 to June 2023), all reported incidents were found on social media. Of a total 483 confirmed incidences of misinformation and disinformation, 204 incidences were reported on Twitter (now X) (42 per cent), 155 (32 per cent) were reported from Facebook, 87 (18 per cent) were reported from TikTok, while 37 (8 per cent) were reported from websites and blogs. There were no reported incidents of misinformation or disinformation on radio, TV, or print media.
Due to the fact that ‘influence entrepreneurship’ is driven by commercial interests, it not only perpetuates the spread of disinformation, but also opens the door to darker elements, such as criminal networks, foreign state actors, and even terrorist organisations. In vulnerable information environments such as ours, and in a context in which democratic institutions are nascent or weak, it is significantly easier to use influence operations to effect real world outcomes.
It is imperative that Africans in general, and Kenyans in particular, are sensitised on the scale and extent of disinformation that is prevalent on the internet and social media. With so many new users accessing social media every year (many in search of news content), it is necessary that users across the board are alive to the existence and dangers of disinformation as well as the reality of influence operations designed to sway public opinion or deceive. This knowledge and sensitisation will enable the electorate to critically assess the political content they interact with on social media, and thus benefit from accessing these sites as well as making informed political and electoral choices based on factual information.
The duo of disinformation and influence operations is only likely to become more prevalent, and it would seem that Kenya has the potential to play a leading role in that regard given the advanced technological capacity already in existence. Homegrown influence operations around the 2022 elections serve as a pointer to what is to come: politics and electoral processes that will be increasingly influenced by online and social media engagement and activity.
Homegrown influence operations around the 2022 elections serve as a pointer to what is to come.
While those in the international policy space have been primarily concerned about influence operations conducted by external actors in Kenya (2013 and 2017, for example), the reality is that following the 2022 election, Kenya has demonstrated its own influence campaign prowess, and her position as an emerging digital state. It may only be a matter of time before this expertise is actively sought out and outsourced to other parts of the region and beyond. Ironically, it may not be a bad thing that Kenya seems to enjoy an aptitude in the digital space. These skills should be put to good use in sensitising the population and countering toxic narratives and disinformation campaigns online. Indeed, Kenya has the potential to excel in this regard. Others in the international policy space would be well advised to be cognisant of the tactics observed in Kenya’s August 2022 elections (and the fact that, although homegrown, similar trends have been witnessed in the US and Russia) and be prepared for the fact that these tactics may be replicated elsewhere.