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REVIEW: Fake news & Kenya’s election – a look at new numbers

A new survey shows that more than a third of Kenyans believe that widespread fake news – defined as the deliberate spreading of false information – is denying them the information needed to make an informed vote in the upcoming election.

The research is the first yet on the impact of fake news in the country, say its authors - communications consultancy Portland and mobile polling firm Geopoll.

Carried out in May 2017, the survey polled a nationally representative sample of 2,000 Kenyans through 25 questions via free text message. Geopoll told Africa Check that they had used a random sample from their database of eight million Kenyans, drawn through a partnership with mobile network operators.

When respondents were added to it, their demographic information was detailed and stored, the firm's client services manager John Murunga said. "When they now take part in future surveys, they are asked afresh [their] demographic information (in line with the survey requirements) and this information is counter-checked with stored data."

‘A bigger problem than previously thought’

Fake news in Kenya is not new, the report states, noting evergreen legends about the country’s celebrities and a mishmash of conspiracy theories, such as on the origin of HIV/AIDS. But the spotlight on its electoral impact in Kenya sharpened in April 2017 when a fake front page of the country’s most-read daily claimed that an aspirant for a party ticket had defected, the report says.

“Of course, this is an issue of fundamental importance to democracy, because it can skew and influence election results,” the authors say. “As such, fake news is a bigger problem than previously thought, with potentially far-reaching consequences.”

Nearly half of respondents (49%) said they received news on the election via social media, with Whatsapp proving the most popular with Kenyans across all age groups.

“The proliferation of low quality websites set up to add credibility to propagate fake news stories and the widespread hiring of bloggers to propagate fake news stories is [an] area of concern,” the report says.

Friends, family, community leaders & bloggers least trusted

This week, the country’s integration commission - a government body that pushes for national cohesion - said it would consider shutting down the internet during the election. However, at the same press conference, Kenya’s communications regulator denied this was an option but asked for the responsible use of the medium.

Nine in ten respondents suspected they had seen or heard of false information related to the election, even if it was due to human error. Nearly as many of those polled (87%) said they had seen information they suspected was deliberately falsified or misrepresented.

“So it appears that whilst this might be emerging as a new concept in some countries, ‘fake news’ is not a new concept in Kenya and most Kenyans are able to identify it,” the report said.

Those surveyed said that conflicting information from different sources, controversial messages and biased or inciteful information was among the reasons they suspected information was inaccurate.

Information from friends and family, community leaders and blogger websites was among the least trusted, even if highly used. In what would be welcome news for mainstream media, radio, TV and newspapers had the highest trust, hampered mainly by their low reach.

Consumers must help counter fake news

Two-thirds of Kenyans preferred comprehensive and detailed election-related news.

“This stands in almost direct contrast to other countries such as the UK and US where there has been a long term drive to create succinct soundbites in the belief that consumers no longer have the attention span for anything more substantial,” the authors say.

The report urges communicators to focus on strengthening their credibility. Still, news consumers have a duty to counter fake news, the authors say.

“Why does this matter? An informed citizenry is vital to Kenya’s democracy and the findings have serious implications for the media and society at large,” they concluded.


Additional reading:

GUIDE: Understanding and reporting on opinion polls

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