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Kenya political violence highlights urgent need to fight fake news

Kenya political violence highlights urgent need to fight fake news

Catherine Gicheru | August 31, 2017

Truth is always a casualty during any campaign season and it was no different during Kenya’s recent presidential elections. A week before the August 8 vote, Facebook launched a highly publicized campaign meant to educate Kenya’s estimated 6.1 million Facebook users on identifying fake news. The campaign included print and radio advertisements, while Kenyan users who logged into Facebook were immediately taken to a homepage listing tips for verifying news stories.

Facebook’s efforts came amid concerns that the proliferation of false news reports leading up to the election would increase tensions between Kenya’s political parties. Indeed, the weekend after the election saw one of the worst outbreaks of political violence in Kenya since 2007. The protests were accompanied by various false reports on violent incidents that were widely shared on social media channels.

As found in a recent report by mobile survey platform GeoPoll, Kenyans do tend to trust traditional media organizations more than social media channels. However, this could suffer a severe blow, given that Kenya’s media arguably failed to adequately cover the post-election violence, which, according to the country’s human rights commission, resulted in at least 24 people dying at the hands of the police.  

While it's difficult to say to what degree disinformation helped contribute to Kenya's political tensions, fake news has been known to directly incite violence with devastating consequences in other regions... 

This perceived failure to adequately report on the violent protests may have driven citizens to depend more on social media platforms to report on, and share news and images, of the incidents as they happened. These reports — some of them fake — were shared widely with little or no attempt at verification.

While it’s difficult to say to what degree disinformation helped contribute to Kenya’s current political tensions, fake news has been known to directly incite violence with devastating consequences in other regions like South Sudan. The spread of disinformation has also impeded Kenya’s efforts to tackle some serious public health problems -- for example, there is an oft-repeated and frequently debunked claim that tetanus vaccines are laced with fertility inhibiting hormones!

So in an environment where misinformation, fake news and rumours abound and where the lie travels faster than the truth, what are news organizations and journalists to do?

Here are some suggestions:

Seek opportunities for collaboration

I’ve tried to do this with PesaCheck, Kenya’s first fact-checking organization, which shares its material with multiple media partners in Kenya. Teaming up could allow news organizations to debunk lies and misinformation much more effectively.

Make fact-checking the default

Both individual journalists and newsrooms should always exercise a healthy skepticism of what they read, hear and are told — it is their responsibility to check and corroborate what they share with their audiences.

Support media literacy training

More than ever, it is imperative that citizens understand how to identify a well-reported story versus one that is is poorly sourced and propagandistic. Media literacy — learning how to identify what is and what is not true — should be taught at all levels of school.

Create new opportunities in the newsroom

Given the frenetic pace at which news is published and distributed, as well as the wide range of potential sources for any given story, newsrooms have arguably never needed fact-checkers more than they do today. There are thought to be over 120 fact-checking organizations in 49 countries across the globe, and the skill will likely grow more in demand, even as other types of newsroom roles are in decline

Amplify and diversify

Journalists and news organisations should amplify and diversify the voices of those who are trusted by the community. In Kenya, for example, there are voices such as @kenyanpundit@WanjikuRevolt and @KResearcher, who are among others who may not have formal journalism training, but they are trusted by their communities. Thus, in some situations, they can possibly be more effective than traditional media outlets in debunking fake news and stopping the spread of misinformation.

Catherine Gicheru is a veteran Kenyan journalist working with Code for Kenya. Learn more about her work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.

Image cc-licensed by ObamaWhiteHouse.gov 

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