Disinformation Country Profile: Kenya

This week’s fake news profile is on Kenya. Since their independence in 1963, Kenya has had a complex media history and recent tumultuous political events combined with wide resentment of mainstream media sources make it an interesting case study for fake news.

Kenya’s first media publication, The Standard, began publishing daily in 1902 and today still has a 48% share of the newspaper market with a circulation of just over 70,000. However, it is the state TV station in Kenya, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), that has the most chequered past. Founded in 1928 with a target audience of white settlers, after independence from Britain the KBC was nationalised into government control in 1964 and fifteen years later during the government of Daniel arap Moi, the KBC quickly became a mouthpiece for the government to push propaganda and intensively vetted news.

During Moi’s presidency, each KBC broadcast started with a summary of the president’s appearances that day. Moi led a de facto one-party state and used the KBC to broadcast news in his party’s favour – perpetuating his rule and his party’s governance. The video below shows how the news starts with a recap of Moi’s interactions that day with features such as this:

It was also during Moi’s rule that Kenya’s first major fake news stories began to circulate – that the 1981 HIV/AIDS epidemic was man-made. There were various variations of the conspiracy, but they all shared the notion that AIDS was man-made. Theories claimed it was created by the CIA, caused by poverty and bad nourishment, and was even being used as a form of population control. These theories have endured since the 1980s and in 2004 in an interview with TIME, the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathi alluded to the conspiracy saying “I have no idea who created AIDS and whether it is a biological agent or not. But I do know things like that don’t come from the moon”. This shows that even over 20 years after its inception, the notion that the West created AIDS is still very alive.

Although recently the media landscape has diversified, up until 2017 the state was the single biggest source of advertising revenue for private media meaning Kenya’s private media couldn’t exist without the state. In 2017 the government changed this so advertising could only be through the KBC. UCLan’s George Ogola said it’s “difficult not to characterise the withdrawal of state advertising from commercial media as punitive” as without the revenue provided by the state, many publications faced closure. Critics also claim that media revenue withdrawal is being used as a tool by the government for indirect state control over the media.

The state media and the government have proven to be incredibly biased, and as a result people’s distrust has driven them to so called ‘alternative’ media sources. This coupled with the considerable increase of internet penetration from 76.7% to 87.4% between 2012-2016 creates the perfect breeding ground for fake news. Online media outlets, news through Facebook and WhatsApp, and fringe media sources provide a refuge for those who have become disenchanted and disillusioned with Kenya’s media landscape. Similarly, the rise of citizen journalism means Kenyans can make their voices heard in a country with historically restrictive reporting.

State control of the private media was exemplified in 2017’s elections. Kenya’s first election was nullified on 01/09/2017 by the Supreme Court and the opposition leader Raila Odinga quit the repeat vote saying the government was orchestrating a win. Later, in January of 2018, during a rally Odinga swore himself in as the “people’s president”. However, as this happened the Kenyan government temporarily shut down three major private TV stations (Citizen TV and Radio, KTN News; NTV) as punishment for showing the opposition party. NPR’s Eyder Peralta said even in Kenya the crackdown came as a shock as it was such blatant intervention from the government. The move received criticism from the US, UK and UN and it took nine days and a High Court ruling for the ban to be lifted.

Addressing the rise of fake news and misinformation in Kenya, just over five weeks ago on the 16th May the “Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act 2018” was passed from a bill into law. The law addresses cyber-crimes, including child pornography, computer fraud and identity theft, cyber harassment, online defamation and publishing of false information. The law states that “A person who intentionally publishes false, misleading or fictitious data or misinforms with intent that the data shall be considered or acted upon as authentic, with or without any financial gain, commits an offence and shall, on conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding five million shillings or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or to both”. Five million shillings is equivalent to ~£37,429 (~$49,550), almost double Kenya’s average salary.

The bill was previously challenged and suspended by a judge on the basis that it contravened constitutional provisions of freedom of expression and freedom of the media. Upon a close reading, nowhere in the law is a definition of false news or misinformation provided or alluded to resulting in fears that prosecutors could create their own criteria for fake news to target their critics in the press. Critics also claim the law is simply a replacement of a law that was removed in Kenya during 2017 that was deemed unconstitutional by the High Court. The “undermining the authority of a public officer” law which stated that:

“any person who, without lawful excuse, the burden of proof where of shall lie upon him, utters, prints, publishes any words, or does any act or thing, calculated to bring into contempt, or to excite defiance of or disobedience to, the lawful authority of a public officer or any class of public officers is guilty of an offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years.”

The wording of 2018’s Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act is very similar to this wording. Another weak point of 2018’s act is the previous case of Andare vs Republic. In 2015, Geoffrey Andare wrote in a Facebook post that Titus Kuria, a representative of a scholarship foundation, had used his position to sexually exploit women seeking scholarships. Kuria’s lawyers sought to prosecute Andare under Section 29 of Kenya’s Information and Communication Act that criminalises false information. However, these charges were dismissed when the High Court ruled Section 29 as unconstitutional because it limited personal freedoms and was too vague in its wording. Similar claims could be brought on 2018’s bills because, as previously mentioned, it does not state what constitutes misinformation or false news and potentially infringes upon Kenyan’s constitutional rights of free speech.

As my previous fake news profile on India showed, fake news laws are often victims to their own vagueness and give authorities the ability to define ‘truth’ and ‘false’ and thus can be exploited. Fake news laws are used as proxies to silence and punish critics on the basis that their unfavourable views are ‘false’. This new law together with Kenya’s already aggressive anti-media government would suggest that it is simply a way to persecute those who disagree publicly with the government.

Continuing with Kenyan’s constitutional rights, Article 31 of the Kenyan Constitution specifically protects the right to privacy however to date the country still does not have specific data protection legislation. As a result, Kenyan’s online data is essentially open to anyone who desires it. This implicates a company that has played a considerable role in US and UK elections/referendums in recent years – Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica (who have now closed down) denied any claims that they worked with current President Uhuru Kenyatta’s party the Jubilee Party, but Channel 4 in the UK broadcasted a secret filming of the managing director of Cambridge Analytica, Mark Turnbull, admitting Cambridge assisted the campaigns of President Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. The Jubilee Party have since acknowledged that Cambridge were employed by Kenyatta but said their role had been exaggerated and that “they were basically branding and all that, but not directly [involved]”. However, in the secret recording Turnbull said Cambridge were involved in “just about every element” of Kenyatta’s last two campaigns and even said that Cambridge wrote and disseminated the party’s manifesto, wrote Kenyatta’s election speeches and carried out two rounds of interviews with 50,000 participants.

Cambridge boasted on their website they can “use data to change audience behaviour”. Cambridge did this during the US presidential election and the UK-EU referendum by showing select (and false) information to certain demographics on social media to manipulate individual’s mindsets. Chris Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, has said that Cambridge “took fake news to the next level” to create information cocoons to manipulate voters in America, a country with stringent data protection laws. Considering their absent data protection laws, Cambridge Analytica’s potentially immense effects on the political sphere in Kenya cannot be overstated.

A concern during previous elections has been tribalism. During the controversial 2007 election, tribal tensions reached a fever pitch which led to 1,300 deaths and over 600,000 displaced from their homes. These divides show there are already deep ethnic and racial tensions surrounding elections, and fake news can be used to stoke these tensions and can pit demographics against each other. Edwin Sifuna, the secretary general of the Orange Democratic Movement, said this creates a siege mentality among tribes which leads them to take defensive strategies and even take up arms.

Aware of the danger to life that fake news causes in Kenya, both Facebook and Donald Trump’s US government have sought to educate people about the dangers of fake news. Facebook took out this full-page ad in Business Daily Africa, Kenya’s most widely read business publication:

The full-page ad features ten tips for spotting fake news, similar to the guide that Facebook rolled out in its app last year to British Facebook users. The ad finishes with “Together, we can limit the spread of false news”. The WhatsApp logo also appears in the top left alongside the Facebook logo, showing Facebook’s awareness of WhatsApp’s role in spreading fake news (Facebook also own other social networks Instagram and Pinterest).

As part of the US State Department’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), the US has created the “Stop. Reflect. Verify.” programme in Kenya. The initiative is active across social media and the internet and have recently published images in a ‘meme’ format and created YouTube videos to help people to ‘Stop. Reflect. Verify.’:

The initiative also created a quiz to help people spot fake news. True and false stories across several topics were collected and put into a quiz which was then sent out on Facebook and Twitter. The quiz showed screenshots of fake news stories and asks users to tick one of two boxes: “Yes – this is a real story” or “No – this is false news” as well as questions such as “Would you forward this?”:

Find the Stop.Reflect.Verify quiz here.

The digital research company Nendo were commissioned to make the quiz and said a quiz format was used because of the popularity of quizzes on social media. Mark Kaigwa, the founder of Nendo, said “quizzes are among the web’s most engaging type of content” and they “tend to have a very strong metric around getting people to share them, especially when there’s some kind of reveal”. Nendo are relying on virality and dissemination of their quiz across social networks to tackle fake news which is disseminated in largely the same way – a ‘tackling fire with fire’ approach.

To end this week’s fake news profile, some examples of fake news in Kenya:

In April 2017, a fake front page of the newspaper Daily Nation was printed and disseminated in Busia County in western Kenya. The imitation was distributed as a one-page leaflet and claimed that MP Paul Otuoma had defected from his party the Orange Democratic Movement to the Jubilee Party. The fake article is shown on the left below while the authentic front page from 13thApril 2017 is on the right:

In November 2015, the Kenyan publication The Spectator published an online article titled “Robert Mugabe God Should Never Have Created Those Thieves Kenyans Here In Africa”. The article quoted the then Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe as saying “Kenyans are the most arrogant thieves in the world because they steal with high degree impunity”.


The social analytics site BuzzSumo shows the article has over 29,000 social media shares and was also picked up by other websites. Perhaps most importantly, the article was also reported by the Ney York Times, a legacy American newspaper based in New York City. The NYT published the correction below on 12/11/2015:

To conclude this week’s profile, a combination of huge resentment for state media, absent data protection laws, Cambridge Analytica’s employment by President Uhuru Kenyatta, and a shift from traditional media to internet and alternative media has created a toxic media environment in Kenya that has cultivated and bolstered fake news. Intervention by foreign governments and social media companies hopes to rectify decades of fake news damage. However, this may be too little too late and as the CEO of the National Super Alliance (NASA) Norman Magaya said in an interview: fake news in Kenya has “planted seeds of discord that will take generations to heal”.

One thought on “Disinformation Country Profile: Kenya

  1. Pingback: What is ‘Beyond Fake News’? – FakeBelieve – The Fake News Blog

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