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Did Fake News Save Kenya from an Internet Shutdown? Emerging Trends in Tech and Elections in Africa​

Did Fake News Save Kenya from an Internet Shutdown? Emerging Trends in Tech and Elections in Africa​

featuring Grace Mutung'u, the 2016/17 OTF Information Controls Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center

Kenya held general elections on August 8, 2017. The presidential election was nullified due to irregularities and is set for a repeat on October 26, 2017. Technology played a key role in the polls at two levels - there was use of tech in aspects such as results transmission and social media was employed massively in political campaigns with propaganda and fake news flowing freely.

In this talk Grace Mutung’u explores emerging trends in the use of technology in elections and their effects on Internet freedom. She gives a short background on the history of technology and elections in Kenya and then participates in a Q&A with BKC affiliate Ellery Biddle of Global Voices and answers questions from the audience.

Notes from the talk

People in Kenya take elections very seriously, said Mutung’u. In the seven presidential elections since independence in 1963, all but one have been disputed. The 2007 election led to reform and to a new constitution in 2010. By 2017, she said, issues related to corruption, historical injustices, and equity were all important topics for discussion and continue to be as the country gears up for the repeat elections on October 26th.

As technology and the internet play more of a role in elections, there are consequences such as an increased polarity of the country, increased policing of the internet, and a general increase in discourse. Technology was integral to the 2017 election in Kenya, including playing a role in voter registration, voter identification, and results transmission. It was the argument that voting technology had been hacked during results transmission that led to the courts to examine the paper voting records and ultimately determine that significant enough irregularities existed to warrant calling for a new election. Questions remain as to how the transmission system will function on October 26th.


Technology also played a large role in the 2017 Kenyan election in terms of the dissemination of information, both in terms of the content itself as well as how it spread. Mutung’u reported that there was a lot of fake news and propaganda, primarily spread on WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook and that the government attempted in various ways to regulate online information, including through regulations, surveillance, and direct online engagement with critics. Much of the fake news, however, was spread through private groups on WhatsApp, which kept it hidden from the open web and also in many cases rendered stories more powerful as they were spread through trusted networks.  At the same time, much of the fake news and negative campaigning was very professionally done, she said. “There were really nice videos and really nice memes. They really understood the landscape and made the news as easy as possible to consume,” she said. “And they shared it in closed groups.”  Later, due to people “calling them out” and sharing these stories on the open web, it was revealed that the company Cambridge Analytica may have been responsible for much of this content in their role running communications for the incumbent party. Other brigades were also producing false content that benefitted the other political parties.


Another key role technology played in the election was in campaigning. Mutung’u said that nearly all candidates used Facebook in one way or another for political engagement. Some, she said, forgoed traditional campaigning methods altogether and relied exclusively on social media. Corporations did take steps to fight back against the waves of false stories being spread (Facebook ran a full-page newspaper ad trying to educate people about how to tell what is fake news, she said), but in general, their response has not been contextualized to the situation. “They are not understanding the problem of why elections are such a high stakes game in Africa,” she said. “All this fake news is because people really want to win elections. It’s a life and death situation. It would be interesting to try another way. The people who spread harmful content - why? What do they really want to talk about? Is there a place we can sit down and find out what their issues really are and find a way to solve these issues?”


Mutung’u said that in some ways, the problem of fake news is actually helping Kenyans tackles issues of truth, justice, and reconciliation, topics that need to be addressed but that formal processes have not been successful with.  “Sometimes, fake news helps us talk about about these issues that were not on the table before.” She said that fake news also may have prevented an internet shutdown around the election. “All indications were that there would be a shutdown,” she said. But in the end the government did not shut it down. This is likely for a number of reasons, including that government was benefitting from much of the false content, that fake news was motivating more people to go to the polls, and that the political cost for shutting down the internet may have been too high, she said.


In addition to discussing the role of technology and social media on the election, Mutung’u also talked about the importance of data protection and data privacy. Kenya does not yet have a data protection framework, she said, noting that there’ a right of protection of privacy in the new constitution, but no enabling legislation. “It’s a delicate balance,” she said, citing the example of publishing of the country’s voter register so that people can see that it's clean, but noting that, too much personal information was shared. “We need to lead Africa in getting data protection laws that protect people from both companies and their own government,” she said.


Notes by Gretchen Weber

About Grace

Grace was a 2016/17 OTF Information Controls Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center studying freedom online during election periods in East Africa. She analysed freedom online in the Uganda elections of 2016 and is part of an election observer mission in Kenya's 2017 elections.

Grace is also an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and an associate at the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet) where she carries out ICT  policy and legal  analysis.

Follow her on Twitter a @Bomu.


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Past Event
Wednesday, October 4, 2017
12:00 PM - 1:15 PM

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