The problem of ‘fake news’ hit the headlines this week after leaflets, posters and a mock front page of the Daily Nation circulated in Busia County.
The documents claimed that Dr Paul Otuoma — who is seeking the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) ticket for governor — had defected to Jubilee.
Otuoma claimed that his political opponents had also told voters in his strongholds that the ODM party primaries had been cancelled so as to ensure a low turnout.
In response, the sitting governor, Sospeter Ojaamong, distanced himself from the rumours and propaganda, but insisted that Otuoma had in fact defected.
Such rumours are a problem because, while some may be true, many others are false.
Nevertheless, many ordinary citizens believe what they read and hear, especially when it comes from sources that they trust.
These include friends and families, but also co-ethnics and those whose reports resonate with personal and collective assumptions and fears.
People are also more likely to believe rumours when they are repeated, which makes social media particularly problematic.
Indeed, while fake news is far from a new phenomenon, the use of new technology — from relatively cheap printing services to mobile short messaging service (SMS) and social media – means that it is increasingly easy to spread rumours quickly, cheaply and anonymously.
As the anthropologist Michelle Osborn argues in an article on the 2007/8 post-election violence: “Where rumours were once local, taking time to percolate outwards and onwards to a broader national audience, the use of high-tech communication, such as mobile phones, email, internet websites and weblogs, has transformed the pace and range of rumour. Kenya’s local rumours now go national in minutes”.
This is further exacerbated by the lengths that many aspirants and activists will go to in the context of heightened competition to spread propaganda.
The aim: to weaken their opponents by making them look biased, ill, corrupt, violent or immoral.
This is evident from the recent production of the fake front cover of the Nation, but also from interviews with activists in different parts of the country.
In this way, one activist recently explained to me how he and his colleagues had at least six Facebook accounts, each with fake names and pictures, which they used to spread rumours.
The activist went on to note that multiple accounts were helpful because, if someone posted a story and then ‘others’ commented on the same, people were more likely to notice the post and to believe it.
This Machiavellian approach was also evident in the account of another activist who spoke of how, in the last election, he had organised for ‘goons’ dressed in T-shirts associated with his candidate’s main opponent to disrupt a meeting so that residents would believe that the other candidate was pro-violence and untrustworthy.
Such efforts are problematic as they are often believed and shared leading to a situation where many are influenced to make choices that are based on false information and thus not in their best interests.
It is also a problem as it can fuel public anger and violence.
This was evident during the post-election violence of 2007/8 when, as Osborn notes with respect to Kibra in Nairobi, the use of SMS helped to spread rumours almost instantaneously “contributing to increased anxiety, sometimes leading to panic, and, on occasion, motivating people to action”.
Indeed, while many are not ill intentioned when they spread rumours, but instead simply want to share information and protect loves ones, it is important that people think about what they see, hear, read, and share.
This is particularly important as the elections approach, given that many aspirants and activists will be purposefully trying to spread false information, which others will then share believing (or fearing) it to be true.
In short, people need to be aware of the problem of fake news; to seek alternative sources of information; and, where possible, try to verify the multiple rumours which they are likely to hear in the months ahead.
Gabrielle Lynch, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Warwick (g.l[email protected]; @GabrielleLynch6)