We live in a post-truth global order. The rise of post-truth politics widely risks marring Kenya’s August polls and polarising society.
In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” its international word of the year, citing a 2,000 pc increase in usage compared to 2015. At the same time, the German language society (Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache) named the related word, “post-factual”, as the word of the year, connecting it to the rise of right-wing populism.
When the late Serbian-American playwright, Steve Tesich, first used the term post-truth in 1992, he had in mind the trend by media to sanitise the coverage of the shocking truth of Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf War. “We, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world,” Tesich wrote.
In the same vein, in 2004, the American journalist, Eric Alterman, described the George W. Bush administration after 9/11 as “the post-truth presidency”.
In 21st century, the word "post-truth" means the decline of objective facts in shaping public opinion. In the ensuing political culture, facts have been replaced with appeals to emotion and (subjective) personal beliefs.
In his book The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, Ralph Keyes shows how dishonesty has blurred the line between truth and lies, helping to de-sensitise us to its insidious repercussions.
As the black-and-white logic is replaced by shades of grey as the new normal, commentators and out-right pushers of party lines are able “to easily cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire”.
As one writer noted perceptively, the core message of post-truth politics is: “Facts are negative. Facts are pessimistic. Facts are unpatriotic”.
In this post-truth environment, language has been re-engineered to mask and sanitise dishonesty and deceptions.
People are no longer lying, they are “economical with the truth”! As liars disappeared, deceit becomes spin and frauds are professionalised as “spin-doctors”.
Scholars see the rise of post-truth politics as a throwback to the 18th and 19th “pamphlet wars” triggered by the growth of mass printing where slanderous and acerbic booklets were cheaply printed and liberally disseminated.
The results were the wars and revolutions such as the English Civil War and the American War of Independence that heralded the rise of liberal democratic thought.
Indeed, the influential pamphlet TheCommunist Manifesto belongs to this early form of post-truth politics, which eventually gave way to the toning down of rhetoric and balanced media in the 20th century.
After 2016, the post-truth politics has been associated with the upsurge of populism on a global scale. Indeed, the post-truth label was especially widely used to describe the presidential campaign of Donald Trump in 2016. It was also tagged on the 2016 referendum on the membership of the European Union (Brexit) in the United Kingdom.
Three trends in the media landscape are driving the post-truth politics in Kenya, everywhere eroding principle of impartiality in the media.
One is the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle. Media channels are resorting to false balance by giving equal emphasis to fake, unsupported or discredited claims without challenging their factual basis.
Under pressure to cope with the 24-hour news cycle, younger and inexperienced journalists are resorting to fake news sites and false rumors in social media to tint their reports.
Two, social media is becoming an echo-chamber of false stories. It is creating a parallel and unregulated media ecosystem of websites, publishers and news channels able to develop and repeat false claims with impunity and without rebuttal.
Three, as in America, Kenya is experiencing an explosion of fake news sites publishing articles and posting video documentaries of dubious factual content with a misleading headline and authorship, designed to be widely shared.
A defining mark of post-truth politics in Kenya as elsewhere is the trend by campaigners to continue to bombard the public with rehearsed and repeated talking points, even if these are proven to be false by the media or independent experts.
The best example is the impunity with which the claim that the EU membership cost £350 million a week was used during the Brexit referendum. Although the UK Statistical Authority and BBC News, among others, rejected this claim as false and potentially misleading, pro-Brexit campaigners continued to use the figure until the day of the referendum!
Similar impunity is evident in Kenya where ahead of the August presidential poll the false claim that Sh215 billion from Kenya’s Eurobond funds was stolen is still used in the media despite being proved as false.
As the elite around former President Mwai Kibaki realised rather belatedly, sticking to objective facts in the age of post-truth politics can prove costly for political formations. The rival ODM turned PNU’s data-heavy campaign into a political tragedy by pouring scorn on the government’s development narrative.
In the run-up to 2017, ODM is using corruption claims largely based on audit queries by the Auditor-General to make mincemeat of Jubilee’s development record.
However, in its most extreme mode, the use of conspiracy theories in post-truth politics is the greatest risk to the stability of Kenya’s election in August. In a tweet in October, 2016, Donald Trump alleged that conspiracy was under way between the news media and the Democratic Party to rig the American election. “The election is absolutely being rigged”, he said.
In Kenya, the opposition has alleged conspiracy to rig the August polls. Fuelling the claims, in January, the Media mogul, S.K. Macharia, controversially told the Senate’s Legal Affairs Committee that former Prime Minister Raila Odinga won the 2007 presidential election.
National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale alleged that opposition leader Raila Odinga was working with an American-Canadian, a Mr Michael Yard, to hack into the system of the IEBC to rig the 2017 polls using the electronic system.
False rigging claims can shatter political norms, erode confidence in the vote and set off unrest among supporters of political formations.
Prof Peter Kagwanja is chief executive, Africa Policy Institute.