A week out from Kenya’s highly-anticipated August 8 election, increasingly fake news reports are circulating on social media platforms in the country.
Slickly-produced news bulletins that at first glance appear to be from major international broadcasters including CNN and the BBC have surfaced in recent days.
One bogus report cuts from a legitimate CNN Philippines broadcast to a fake voiceover segment which falsely implies that one candidate is leading over the other in a recent poll.
Polling numbers have the two leading candidates – incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and long-time rival and veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga – in a much tighter race, with neither garnering enough support for an outright victory.
To unequivocally win the election, a candidate has to receive 50% of the votes plus one as well as at least 25% of the votes in half of Kenya’s 47 counties. If no winner is declared, the election will go into a run-off, for the first time in Kenya’s history.
Fake news came to the fore during the 2016 US election and the Brexit referendum in the UK earlier that year. Now social platforms like Facebook are working to combat the growing problem.
How to spot the fakes
The fake poll video was made to look like a CNN broadcast with the familiar red and white logo carefully superimposed in the corner of the shot, but the font in the headline is very different to the one used in CNN’s reports.
There is no way of gauging just how many people shared the fake CNN report but it has been widely shared on social platforms. After CNN was made aware of the fake report, it debunked it in a tweet.
The BBC’s Focus on Africa program was also manipulated last week; edited to include the same false poll.
Alphonce Shiundu is the Kenya editor of Africa Check, a not-for-profit working to promote accuracy in the media across the continent. He says videos like these can seriously influence voting behavior.
“People who don’t watch CNN or the BBC would not know that these videos were fake,” Shiundu explains. “When this fake report is putting Kenyatta ahead, and you’re sending this video to Kenyatta’s stronghold, it just reinforces the belief that he has the numbers and he’s going to win.”
And it’s not just voters who have been tricked by these bogus news segments.
Suzanne Silantoi, 23, is running for the Kenyan Senate as an independent candidate to represent Nairobi. She told CNN she thought the distributed video, which was shared on her timeline, was real.
“I didn’t know it was fake. But I didn’t believe the poll the fake report was talking about.”
Silantoi says Kenyans can spot some fake news but it becomes harder when the hoax imitations are made to look like international news outlets.
“We know that if you want to get credible news you just get it from the mainstream media. There are a lot of bloggers and Internet based news in Kenya which are not trustworthy and most of them are fake,” she says.
“If you get a certain news that’s saying something and then you go to the mainstream and if they are saying the same thing then you believe it’s true.”
But Silantoi says she does not believe Kenyan voters are being swayed by these phony videos because much of the population tends to select which politician to support according to their own ethnicity.
“… in Kenya, it’s very hard to get objectivity. Many times people would just tend to stay in their own political affiliations, regardless of whether the news is fake or not,” she says.
Be on the lookout
However, Shiundu says sophisticated videos like this could be damaging to undecided voters who might inadvertently pass on false information to friends and family, believing it to be true.
“If they send that video to a community group or a family group in the village – they will believe that it’s true – and are likely to vote for the side that has the numbers,” says the Nairobi-based fact-checker.
He says there is a lot of fake news being disseminated on “dark” social media platforms.
“That means it’s coming from Telegram or WhatsApp groups that are not easily traceable – and not quickly debunked,” Shiundu says, adding “So you get people – even politicians – making wrong decisions based on unverified information.”
As the race enters its final days, with campaigning due to end on Friday, Shiundu is warning voters to be vigilant.
“Politicians will still find a way to push for people to campaign for them via social media, and that’s when we will see a spike in more fake news.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Suzanne Silantoi’s last name.