If the General Public is Not Well - Informed, It’s a Lost Battle
Kenya, my home, has general elections slated for Tuesday this week, literally less than 48 hours from now.
My colleague Dr. Wambui Wamunyu and I had a chance to undertake research work on the Disinformation Pathways in Kenya’s Political Sphere.
The study assessed disinformation in Kenya’s political sphere ahead of the August 2022 general election.
The phenomenon of disinformation is not new in Kenya and has been in full display at national and grassroots levels, as politicians sought to woo a heterogenous electorate divided along ideological, ethnic, economic, and demographic lines.
The data for the study was gathered through a review of legal and policy documents from government and social media platforms, as well as interviews with respondents from the government, academia, political parties, digital content creation, and mainstream media.
Actors and Strategies
The range of actors within the ecosystem we found, included politicians, political parties, strategists, content creators, digital platforms and citizens.
The study also found that disinformation content is shaped through well-crafted strategies designed to create and advance enduring and specific narratives or agendas, deceive consumers or perpetuate hate speech. It was interesting to see that it doesn't just come up organically but the fact that there was a conceited effort to build narratives and map modes of dissemination.
Further, disinformation relies on a public that does not have the resources to counter or fact-check the large volumes of manipulated information.
Forms of Disinformation
To fully harness the benefits of disinformation, perpetrators rely on a combination of various media including videos, photos and sound recordings for the online space and hard copies of propagandist leaflets and pamphlets.
The use of disinformation content and techniques varies greatly depending on the circumstances and is directly tied to the campaign methods adopted by the various teams.
In political contests, candidates will use techniques that enable them to reach the largest audiences within the shortest time. Some of these techniques have manifested in presidential elections over the last two decades. Consequently, to reach those in areas with widespread internet connectivity, perpetrators use social media.
Locally, disinformation is still largely perpetrated by individuals as the concept of PR firms has not been fully embraced. Perhaps this is because of the cost associated with using firms vis-a-vis the returns. Additionally, there may be reluctance on the part of the firms to take up work of a political nature because of the stigma and potential repercussions that may be associated with such work.
Legal and Policy Framework
The government has taken several measures in an attempt to curb the spread of disinformation. One has been through the enactment of new laws and amendment of existing ones to make disinformation an offence.
Currently, there is no law in Kenya that clearly defines or distinguishes between misinformation and disinformation.
... despite several seemingly legal arrests, the State has been unable to prosecute and obtain convictions based on the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act (CMCA). The law intended to provide for offences relating to computer systems; to enable timely and effective detection, prohibition, prevention, response, investigation and prosecution of computer and cybercrimes; to facilitate international co-operation in dealing with computer and cybercrime matters; has been weaponised as a tool to combat dissent.
Bloggers and activists such as Edgar Obare and Mutemi wa Kiama are some of those who have been arraigned in court over violation of this law after threats and intimidation from unknown and unnamed third parties.
Given how slow court - made jurisprudence develops in Kenya, it is yet to be seen whether these arrests and prosecutions reduce the spread of disinformation.
So Why Does this Matter?
Disinformation has a destabilising effect on democratic processes for various reasons. It serves personal rather than national agendas, is fast and easy to create and disseminate, diminishes trust in democratic and political institutions, and places the burden of verifying information on institutions or individuals.
The former - such as mainstream media and fact-checking organisations - cannot address the deluge of false or incorrect information that is generated and disseminated particularly on social media platforms. Individuals are not always aware of their civic rights and responsibilities or equipped to recognise false information.
Social media architecture enables disinformation
Another key gap is the use of artificial intelligence tools as a first level of review, which is not sufficient or ideal. Even more complex is the use of human reviewers who may not have a first-hand understanding of the disinformation content in local languages and may not appreciate the local context of the content or of its ramifications after it is posted.
Additionally, the conflict between national legal provisions and the platform standards and community guidelines means that content that is considered unlawful locally is not removed from the platforms due in part to the different cultural value system of the platforms vis-a-vis that of the country.
Calls to Action
The study calls for better social media platform governance and responses to tackle disinformation.
It also highlights the need for enhanced efforts to empower the public to be more vigilant and capable of identifying disinformation and finding factual and accurate information online.
The study also calls upon various stakeholders, especially those that have significant influence in public affairs, such as government bodies, private sector entities, media, civil society and prominent personalities, to regularly and proactively share up-to-date information on both online and offline platforms to enable the public get first-hand unadulterated information about crucial events.
You can read the full paper here.
This reframing of what various forms of improper information are by Debunk Media using a music band analogy on this video here.
“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”
Paul Carus, summarized from the Dhammapada, verse 165