Deaths, defections and deceit: How Kenya’s fake news spreads
By Allan Kamau
August 2, 2017

Sometimes entire news websites are created with just a few false
stories inserted between real content copied from mainstream outlets.

An example of the fake news that has become pervasive ahead of Kenya’s
elections. Doctored front page of the Ugandan tabloid Red Pepper on
the left, the real one on the right.

With only a few days to Kenya’s 8 August elections, the growing scale,
sophistication and potency of fake news is causing alarm in newsrooms,
government agencies and among the general public.

Late last week, the BBC was forced to put out a statement after a fake
news report designed to appear as if it was from the BBC’s Focus on
Africa programme circulated on social media. CNN and CGTN have been
similarly targeted.

This development is part of a growing problem recently brought into
focus by a survey from Portland and GeoPoll which revealed that fake
news around Kenya’s elections is pervasive. 90% of respondents said
they had seen or heard false reports around the general election, with
87% reporting instances of deliberately false – or fake – news. .

The survey of 2,000 Kenyans concluded that fake news is a core part of
the country’s news mix. Moreover, it found that it is growing in scale
and sophistication with social media fuelling its distribution.

Fake news came to international prominence in the 2016 US presidential
campaign when false stories were shared more widely on Facebook than
mainstream news items. The most popular links favoured Donald Trump
over Hillary Clinton, leading commentators to ask whether they
contributed to his unexpected victory.

Many people expressed shock at what they saw as a new phenomenon, but
it was less surprising in Africa where deliberately false or
inaccurate news is commonplace during elections.
Kenya’s fake news

In Kenya’s 2017 election campaign, the issue of fake news shot into
the limelight in April when a doctored front page of the Daily Nation
circulated in Busia County during the primaries. It claimed that the
opposition Orange Democratic Movement’s Dr Otumo had defected to the
ruling Jubilee party. The story was designed to discredit him on the
day of the nomination.

False statements that the Wiper Democratic Movement’s leader Kalonzo
Musyoka had defected to Jubilee have also circulated widely, along
with frequent claims of celebrity deaths. An analysis of the content
suggests that much of it is part of an orchestrated and strategic
campaign by political actors.

The tactics used can be sophisticated. A fake photo purporting to show
cracks in the new Standard Gauge Railway was discovered to have been a
bridge in Serbia. Whole websites such as and have been set up, copying most of their content from
mainstream media sites but inserting a few fake stories. Video and
audio manipulation is rife as seen in the fake articles made to look
like they were from CNN and the BBC.

An example of fake news targeting the Daily Nation. The doctored
frontpage is on the left with the real one on the right.

Unsurprisingly, social media is a key culprit in spreading fake news.
Twitter is widely used in Africa for political conversations. And last
year, Kenya is reported to have seen the largest growth on Facebook,
reaching 5.3 million users, up 18% from a year before.

Private messaging apps like WhatsApp are also at the frontline of
dissemination. With smart phone penetration is at 60%, WhatsApp is
estimated to have 10 million users across all age groups.

Most of the people that Portland surveyed could list several
potentially fake stories that they had seen recently. Many said false
information was endemic and presented itself in a range of different

More reassuringly, respondents gave a strong sense that they take a
critical approach to news and information. They cited conflicting
data, controversial messages and biased reporting as the top factors
that lead them to suspect something is false. However, with over a
third of Kenyans saying they feel unable to access all the accurate
information about the election they need, fake news is undoubtedly
limiting the public’s ability to make informed decisions.
Time to be vigilant

For the mainstream media, the survey findings may come as good news.
Most Kenyans said they trust traditional media sources such as
television news, while 78% said they want factual and accurate
information. The nation’s media establishment should therefore be
encouraged to invest in better journalism.

Newsrooms are feeling the effects of fake news and many have created
new roles for fact checkers.

But while mainstream media has a duty to counter fake news, it also
needs to maintain ever higher professional standards in verifying
sources and maintaining balance and accuracy. In this new and
uncertain terrain, the value of traditional media lies in its

It is also in the interests of politicians and businesses to remain
hyper-vigilant and to reaffirm the value of the independent media.
While it is often the main conduit by which false stories spread,
social media is also a key battleground for countering fake news and
ensuring that the public remains well informed.

[How to undermine Africa’s independent media]

As the race tightens and as tensions rise a few days before the 8
August vote, access to trustworthy and accurate information is ever
more important. Both producers and consumers of news will have to be
as alert, critical and watchful as possible.

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