Fake news causing financial loss and violence in Kenya

Panelists at a forum organised by SoMA Connect to discuss the impact of fake news and how to control it. Picture:Courtesy
Panelists at a forum organised by SoMA Connect to discuss the impact of fake news and how to control it. Picture:Courtesy

Fake news has been in existence since time immemorial. The frequency of the news and circulation has however grown rapidly because of improved communication.

Smart phones and accessibility of internet has further enabled circulation of these news and is now becoming a problem. Kenya is currently experiencing this problem than ever before because of the electioneering period. Political rivals are spreading propaganda to discredit each other.

These fake news might be generated by people who want traffic to their sites but at the end of the day they hurt people’s businesses, reputation and at times lead to loss of life.

According Steve Chege, Director of Corporate Affairs at Safaricom, they have been forced to put in more money and strategies to deal with fake news.

“My company has fallen victim of such news. People pick information that was shared years ago and share it in order to hurt our business. Some even spread completely wrong information,” he said.

Mr. Chege gives several examples of how they have been caught in the bad situation. One of them happened recently when they shared a notice of Mpesa upgrade which would affect Mpesa services for some hours.

Someone then lifted a notice that was shared in 2015, edited and shared to insinuate that Mpesa would not work for some days. Another example is when some information was shared informing the public that there would be internet shut down. This resulted to a lot of tension because the country was heading to the ballot box.

Fortunately, Safaricom has been able to deal with the situation and pays more attention to what is said about them or said to be from them.

Standard Group Ltd has also suffered the consequences of fake news. Their digital platform has been used to spread news that were later confirmed to be fake. Some people have also spread fake news through accounts that look very similar to their social media accounts. According to Julian Kamau from Standard Digital the situation has embarrassed the company several times.

The most familiar case is when they ran a story which said that the Eritrean government had ordered their men to marry at least two wives or face a jail term.

The story resulted to interesting discussions. It however didn’t last long before the Eritrean government issued a statement denying the allegations.

Ms. Kamau however says that they have learnt a lot from the experience. “We now have to check and double check our content and the information that we get before we put it out to the public,” she said adding that this however leads to delay in sharing of the information.

Unfortunately, this delay creates a gap which is then filled by bloggers and gutter press. The bloggers are usually in a hurry to share what is controversial in order to get traffic to their sites and make money.

“We are working on how we can verify the information and still deliver on time. Otherwise, fake news has become very expensive. We usually exhaust our litigation money before we reach the target period,” said Kamau.

Some of the fake news have however led to hatred, violence and at times revenge that leads to deaths. National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) has had to deal with such news. The commission created a Social Media Monitoring Unit which deals with hate speech spread through the social media. According to Dr. Joseph Nasongo, Commissioner, NCIC, verifying if the information really came from the person perceived to be the author is part of their responsibility.

“We have to verify and counter check if the person perceived to have posted the information owns that account and if he posted the information,” he said adding that this makes it easy for them to arrest the person.

“So far there are 273 reported cases around election period that are being dealt with over fake news crisis,” said Dr. Nasongo. He further explained that, holding Whatsapp admins accountable for fake news is meant to ensure moderation of conversations in these groups hence the risk of fake news can be controlled.

Dr. Nasongo however says that this process has resulted to loss of confidence from the public: “People feel that we are taking too long to arrest perpetrators of hate speech. But again we have to be sure that the account used is genuine and the person is not framed. That is how justice works.”

Grace Githaiga – Co-convener, Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANET) (a multi-stakeholder forum for parties interested in ICT policy and regulation) advices people to be very careful before sharing information on social media. “Verify, check and countercheck before you share anything on social media,” she said.

She says that mobile applications like Whatsapp has made communication cheaper especially when sharing with many people. There are also people who she says are idle and just waiting to share information yet too lazy to verify before sharing.

“People think that if you share information and start it with ‘shared as received’ then you cannot be held responsible for your actions,” she adds.

Gachanja also says that some information is easy to verify while others need more intelligence and at times patience. For images for example, one can check using applications like Google Image or Reverse Image check. For text one can use Plagerism Checker. These apps can tell where the content was originally posted some information about it. For audio and visual information, it is however tricky. One is at times forced to use their instincts andmonitor  very keenly to find anything that looks odd.

Digital media expert and Founder of Nendo, Mark Kaigwa advices the public to be very careful with the information they receive. “Let us not be in a hurry to share and let us also condemn the act because this information is hurting many people both directly and indirectly,” he says.

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