Almost nine out of ten Kenyan voters believe they have seen fake news about the upcoming election, according to a new report. The survey — conducted by Portland, a consultant, in partnership with GeoPoll, a mobile polling company — polled a nationally representative sample of 2,000 Kenyans by text message.
Eighty seven percent of respondents claimed they saw "information that they suspected was deliberately false."
Using survey data to quantify the reach of fake news has limitations: participants may not remember accurately or mischaracterize information as fake (a similar poll conducted by BuzzFeed on American voters in December asked respondents about specific fake headlines). The key finding may also be motivated by a broader distrust of the media.
"I think it’s absolutely fair to conclude that there is a general air of distrust surrounding the election," said Eleanor Dickinson, who leads the research team at Portland. "However, we also have data to show that the concerns are much more specific." (Portland asked respondents to elaborate on what they meant by fake news and provide specific examples.)
Kenyan media experts believe fake news likely reaches a significant audience.
"In Kenya, fake news is popular, especially if it has political seasoning," said Alphonce Shiundu, Kenya editor for the fact-checking site Africa Check.
"There are several fake news websites that resemble local and international news websites," said Sam Kamau, a journalism professor at the Aga Khan Graduate School of Media and Communication in Nairobi. These include fake versions of major newspapers like The Daily Nation or foreign outlets like CNN and Foreign Policy (see here, here and here).
Regardless of reach, the supply of fakes has been plentiful. The campaign ahead of the August 8 general election has been peppered with high profile fakes, said Shiundu, who presents a weekly segment on online hoaxes and fact-checking on the broadcaster KTN.
The examples he's run across include faked front pages of real newspapers alleging one politician had switched parties at the last minute and another one had been hospitalized for a Viagra overdose (fake front/real front). A photo of a cracked bridge in Montenegro was misrepresented on social media as a big infrastructure project of the current government already in ruins.
As has been the case in the United States, social networks have provided an easy platform to disseminate fakes — just as they are with many types of information.
"The number of internet users is disputed," said Kamau. Regardless of the metric chosen, however, "numbers show Kenya as having one of the highest internet penetration rates in Africa."
Unlike the United States, a major channel of communication is WhatsApp. The Portland survey found that the messaging app was the most popular platform for general election news in the age group 26-35. This popularity has led Africa Check to invite users to submit claims directly through the app.
A Facebook spokesman told Poynter that "Facebook takes fighting fake news issues seriously." The tools being used by the company in Kenya are the same ones deployed worldwide and include "working to reduce financial incentives, taking action against fake accounts, applying machine learning to help diminish spam, and reducing the posts people see that link to low-quality web pages."
The company did not share whether anything specific was being done to combat fake news on WhatsApp, acquired by Facebook in 2014.
The report indicates Kenyans are very familiar with fake news as a term, which some politicians had already latched onto. Miguna Miguna, a candidate for the governorship of Nairobi, has accused the media of "pumping fake news" and being "fake news peddlers."
Overall, however, the findings seem to indicate that Kenyans trust traditional media more than other sources of information and yearn for more facts. More than one in three respondents noted that they were not "fully able to access all of the true/accurate information about the election that they need." 78 percent said they prefer factual and accurate general election news over opinion-based.
Shiundu thinks increased awareness and media literacy will reduce the spread of fake news — just like it led to a reduction of people falling for email scams about rich bank accounts. That will require a broad coalition of debunkers.
"My antidote to misinformation is to have an army of truth warriors," said Shiundu.
"When they see something fake on WhatsApp, Telegram, Twitter or online, they call it out quickly, so that these issues don’t spread."
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the surnames of Alphonce Shiundu and Eleanor Dickinson. We regret the error.