In Africa, social media companies like Twitter and Facebook place more urgency on developing new products or fixing bugs in existing products than on developing comprehensive strategies and tools to combat harmful and false information shared through their social media platforms during democratic elections.
In 2020, Nu Wexler, a former Twitter's policy communications team lead, described elections in the United States as “the Super Bowl.” On the other hand, Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, hinted that the platform lacked safety controls in non-English speaking markets, including Africa. Is it safe to assume that elections in the global south are used as experimental grounds for social media companies to test drive disinformation tools?
After the failure to stop foreign interference, via organized disinformation, from influencing the 2016 US elections, Facebook and Twitter proactively prepared and developed effective mechanisms and digital tools to tackle fake news and publicly shared their plans before the 2020 elections. In view of this, one could assume that a similar approach would be taken to remove targeted false information because a similar incident occurred during the 2016 Kenyan election.
Kenya’s upcoming election is slated for August 9, 2022. But neither Facebook nor Twitter has publicly disclosed a strategy outlining how they will combat misinformation and disinformation during the elections.
Disinformation is already on the rise ahead of the elections
Kenya’s election is famously known for the proliferation of disinformation through social media platforms. During the 2017 elections, Twitter bots accounted for a quarter of influential voices on Twitter with the primary goal of disseminating negative narratives about major issues, political candidates and perceived electoral abnormalities.
Early this year, bloggers belonging to the camp of Willian Ruto, Kenyan deputy president and a presidential contender, shared a video across Twitter with the hashtag #Railathebetrayer, which trended and influenced conversations on that social media platform. The goal of the campaign was to expose Raila Odinga, a key contender, who is alleged to have betrayed other politicians in his political career.
Kenya’s upcoming elections are already experiencing a bumpy ride as political contenders are engaging in intense accusations. In addition, disinformation campaigns are already on the rise across Facebook and Twitter, without any proper tools to curb them.
The 2021 Reuters Institute Digital News survey indicated that 75 percent of news consumers in Kenya find it hard to distinguish between what is real and what is fake online. Also, political misinformation is known to spread three times faster than any type of misinformation on social media platforms.
This is worrying for citizens because politicians and foreign influencers will weaponize these social media platforms to advance harmful narratives that will undermine the integrity of the Kenyan elections.
Fact-checkers have limited impact on the thriving disinformation industry
In 2019, Facebook outlined the ways it is preparing for elections in Africa, including partnering with local third-party fact-checkers, boosting digital literacy, promoting civic engagement and making political ads transparent. In March 2022, the social media company indicated that, to protect the integrity of the elections and increase transparency, it will verify political advertisers before activating ads. In addition, the social media company will provide public access to its ads library for anyone to see the amount being spent on political ads and who paid for them.
This generic approach used by many social media platforms to solve disinformation challenges during elections, in countries like Kenya, will not yield great results. Kenya has a well organized disinformation industry that thrives on critical events like elections, bill debates, etc. to earn revenue. Kenyan politicians hire social media influencers, who create additional pseudo accounts with large numbers followers, to use their accounts to steer civic discourse to their benefit and target young people with disinformation campaigns.
During the debate of the famous Building Bridges Initiative — a constitutional review process in Kenya — paid Twitter influencers who ran campaigns that not only swayed public opinion, but discredited prominent Kenyan activists, journalists, and judges who opposed the initiative.
As Kenyan human rights activist and Global Voices, Advox Director, Nanjala Nyabola, rightly said, “We are in an era whereby there is big money in politics and a lot of this money is being diverted towards what is happening online and trying to get people's political behaviour modified online, to go towards the ends of the people who have power, who have the influence…”
Hence, it will be ineffective for Twitter and Facebook to relegate the responsibility of mitigating political disinformation to independent fact checkers. Fact-checking partners face two key challenges: they do not have the capacity and time to review the voluminous content on social media platforms, and harmful content that could threaten election integrity will not be prioritized by social media platforms unless fact-checkers choose to do so. The fact-checking partners of some social media companies across Africa have acknowledged that even though their work made some difference, its impact is very limited. In essence, social media lack the willpower to invest and use their resources to protect the election integrity of Kenya.
The failure of social media platforms to learn from how Cambridge Analytica illicitly harvested data from Facebook to drive negative narratives and influence the 2017 Kenyan election leaves much to be desired from these platforms in their quest to fight misinformation in Africa.
Facebook and Twitter need to outline a strategy and invest in solving the problem of how their algorithms will “downrank” and remove the ability to optimize and amplify hatred and false content. This will significantly reduce the capacity of Kenyan politicians to spread divisive content at just a click.