Code for Africa, a DW Akademie partner, tracks down the puppet masters behind disinformation campaigns in the run-up to the country’s elections. Concerns were aired at a recent roundtable.
"The production of misinformation and disinformation has become a business model," Justin Arenstein, CEO of the South African open data initiative Code for Africa, said at a high-level roundtable discussion forum organized by the German Embassy in Nairobi and DW Akademie. The virtual roundtable focused on the increasing pre-election disinformation making the rounds in Kenya.
Arenstein described how underground public relations firms – but also individual keyboard warriors – sell misinformation from single pieces to large-scale campaigns, often to discredit political opponents. Kenya has become a hub for new sophisticated disinformation operations. For years, the country has embraced the use of fake newspaper front pages as a tool for sharing misleading claims about local politicians online. The technique is now being copied and implemented elsewhere in Africa.
Another topic discussed was the role of Kenya as an important target for countries looking to spread disinformation through their respective state media. The China Media Group for instance opened its continental headquarters in Nairobi this year.
"From there, they launch misinformation, but also China-friendly coverage in the country's media," said Arenstein. He added that Russia and Turkey have also chosen Kenya as a hub for their campaigns.
What is real? What is fake?
"All this leads to massive uncertainty among the citizens. People no longer know what to believe," said Jutta vom Hofe, program director Kenya at DW Akademie .
A new survey in Reuters Institute’s 2nd annual Digital News Report indicated that 75% of news consumers in Kenya find it hard to distinguish between what is real and what is fake online. According to the report, "over half of our sample indicated that they had come across false or misleading information about health/COVID-19 (56%) or about politics (63%) in the last week."
"This is very dangerous for the Kenyan media. Their most important asset, their credibility, is being massively challenged," added vom Hofe.
In Kenya, election campaigns can be violent affairs. According to Human Rights Watch, 12 people were killed in post-election violence in 2017.
DW Akademie partner initiatives like PesaCheck, Code for Africa's Kenyan offshoot, and the Investigative Lab (iLab), a Code for Africa partner, were established to push back against the spread of disinformation. iLab and PesaCheck both use social network analysis to identify the people and the organizations behind targeted disinformation campaigns as well as their tactics and motivations.
"We already know from the history of Kenya and many other countries that disinformation and resulting hate speech – especially during elections – can cost lives," said vom Hofe.
Finding common ground
Joining DW Akademie and the German Embassy in Nairobi at the virtual roundtable event were representatives from the UN, the EU delegation, the German Development Bank (KFW), the German Federal Foreign Office, the US Embassy and different European embassies in Kenya. The group discussed possible cooperation, as well as how the various organizations could contribute to combating the spread of disinformation during the upcoming elections, support ethical standards in election reporting and reduce journalistic standards violations.