“Right now, the lies are ahead of us” – Maneuvering in fake news in Kenya and Somalia

Nairobi, December 2017:  While media in much of the Western hemisphere focus primarily on Trump, the US elections and Russian online “trolling” when discussing fake news, in Somalia and Kenya fake news takes on an entirely different dimension

By Helle Wahlberg, IMS

Maneuvering as a journalist or a recipient of information in the ocean of fake news that long has plagued media in Kenya and Somalia is no easy matter. Although the practice of dressing up false information as journalism has been prevalent in these countries for years, the arrival of social media has exacerbated the problem. Social media has provided a new vehicle for reaching global audiences instantly without factchecking systems in place, without the traditional use of checks and balances that normally accompanies the responsibilities of publishers. Distorted information or outright lies now reach a much broader public with the potential of inciting hate and conflict, and becoming a public security threat.

So, how do you maneuver in the ocean of fake news as a user and journalist in Somalia and Kenya? These questions and others were addressed at a debate about fake news and freedom of expression on 6 December in Nairobi, organised by the Swedish Embassy in Nairobi, and the media development organisations International Media Support and Fojo Media Institute (IMS-Fojo). The 250th anniversary of the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act, the world’s first statute related to freedom of the press, provided an ideal backdrop against which to discuss the challenges facing good journalism and freedom of expression today.

“While we know that fake news can sway elections and rock the public’s trust in democratic institutions as we have seen it in the US, in Somalia fake news can lead to serious conflict and even death,” said Muhyadin Roble, Project Manager and editor of the IMS-Fojo run Somali humanitarian Radio Ergo. Radio Ergo forms part of the Swedish funded IMS-Fojo support programme for media in Somalia which aims to strengthen media content, journalists’ safety and media’s economic independence.

Speaking alongside prominent Kenyan editor Catherine Gicheru working with Code for Kenya, and Financial Times East Africa correspondent John Aglionby, Muhyadin Roble described how he and colleagues on Radio Ergo, a humanitarian radio broadcasting through FM to most regions of Somalia, must be on their toes at all times, in connection with information received from callers.

“Everyone has a political agenda to sell. People will call Radio Ergo to give us information about various humanitarian-related issues of interest to the Somali public. They will give you false information or exaggerate the scale of a problem. In that kind of environment, as a journalist you need to know your context, the region and issues you are covering,” said Muhyadin Roble, IMS-Fojo project manager for Radio Ergo.

“For example, a citizen calling Radio Ergo may report that drought has caused a village to be abandoned and sent thousands on the move. This, in order to elicit action from humanitarian agencies or the government. In addition to double-checking this information with at least another source, I would make it a point to know that in that particular area or village of Somalia only 200 people reside –  and so the number of people on the move or seeking help has clearly been inflated. So, it is important to spot the misinformation before reporting on it. Practicing good journalism is important.”

John Aglionby, East Africa correspondent for the Financial Times agreed that working in difficult contexts with multiple interests at stake requires extra caution and diligence when reporting on a story.

“Double sourcing becomes triple sourcing especially when you are working with sources and fixers in different languages. You have to go to the places you cover, and put an effort into getting to know the environments in which the people you work with live.”

Fake news during elections
In Kenya, recent elections in November 2017 once again highlighted the need for both professional journalists and media users to be wary of the information received both in mainstream media and on social media.

A recent study by Geopoll conducted in the months leading up to the Kenyan elections found that 90 per cent of the 2000 people surveyed from 47 counties had seen or read false or inaccurate information during the 2017 electoral period. Social media was the dominant source of fake news stories. The same study also found that the level of fake news had driven an increased number of people to visit mainstream, established, traditionally trusted media online in search of more accurate information rather than only relying on social media. Links from mainstream news sites were experiencing higher click rates than those leading to fake news sites.

However, in Kenya, Whatsapp along with Facebook played a key role in mass distribution of fake stories. Besides being more pervasive than any social network in Kenya, Whatsapp is also fast, simple, and much more intimate compared to say Facebook or Twitter. These factors often serve to reinforce the persuasive powers of fake news stories.

According to veteran Kenyan editor Catherine Gicheru working with the Code for Kenya open data initiative and factchecking entity PesaCheck, Kenyans on Twitter are in general good at debunking lies, but a greater effort should be made by individuals to do so in their closed WhatsApp groups.

“Unfortunately, those on Twitter are not representative of the majority of Kenyans. There are only a few hundred thousand people on Twitter.  We all need to take greater responsibility for correcting the fake news that flourishes within the social media groups in which we belong – on Facebook, Whatsapp, etc. and fight fake news on these channels,” she said, responding to a question about how fake news could be countered.

“My concern is for those living in rural areas. They do not hear about information being corrected. We need to teach people a healthy skepticism when it comes to news consumption. Young people are active on social media, but do not know how to deal with the information they receive. They are the ones that uncritically share much of the fake news,” said Catherine Gicheru.

In the run-up to the repeat Kenyan elections in October, the factchecking initiative PesaCheck partnered with Code for Kenya to verify the sometimes confusing numbers quoted by public figures across East Africa and expose these as they were made in real time.

“PesaCheck was set up to create a clearer picture for citizens of how the state budget was being used. The idea was that we wanted to fact-check public financing. During the elections, we worked to widen our scope and do political factchecking – a round the clock task in Kenya. We also wanted university students to take part in fact-checking in a watchdog role, also looking out for fake news on social media. So we trained students in media literacy – what is fake news and how do you identify it?” Catherine Gicheru adds.

Improving media literacy amongst media consumers was a point not only highlighted by the Director of International Media Support, Jesper Højberg in his introductory speech prior to the debate, but also by panelists Catherine Gicheru and John Aglionby.

According to Catherine Githeru, the ability of citizens to approach and digest the information they receive critically from both mainstream and social media is crucial. Many articles or videos are distributed broadly in social media networks without the sender having read much more than the article headline before hitting the share button.

“As consumers we should perhaps all improve our media literacy by also reading other papers than we agree with,” John Aglionby added.

“So I should also be reading pro-Brexit papers like Daily Mail rather than a pro-Europe paper like Financial Times to really understand the minds of readers.”

Fake news – a money-making business
At the heart of fake news production is often the question of money. Fake News has indeed become a money-making business. In Somalia, paid journalism – in Somali called “sharuur” – is widespread due to the bad economy within journalism.

“The culture of fake news in Somalia has thrived long before social media became popular,” explains Muhyadin Roble, from IMS-Fojo.

“The growth of independent media came about around the same time as the civil war in 2009, but without any regulating authorities to accompany it. And while Somalia’s media sector continues to grow, there is still no formal institution offering journalism education in Somalia to ensure basic professional journalism skills. Media workers are either self-trained or trained on-the-job in media houses where they are often hired on the basis of family connections within the media business. In Somalia, you can become a journalist with the right equipment and no education for a couple of thousand dollars.”

According to Muhyadin Roble, the main difference between the proliferation of fake news in Somalia and Kenya is that in Somalia, fake news often originates from established journalists who have long respected careers and credibility. When they suddenly begin spreading fake news, often for financial reasons, it confuses people and they do not know who or what to believe.

Fake news in Somalia is also often commercially driven. If a company sees a profit opportunity in spreading certain pieces of fake news, they will. Muhyadin Roble also described how Somali politicians will slander and spread fake news about each other in mainstream media and on social media to influence public opinion.

“Fake news comes at you from everywhere – from figures of authority and respected journalists. That is the difference from Kenya. So, my question to my Somali media colleagues is: We talk about holding governments to account. But who is holding the Somali media to account?” asks Muhyadin Roble.

Countering fake news
There was a consensus amongst the panelists that tackling fake news demands a multipronged approach. The motivational factors that often lie behind the production of fake news like financial incentives must be addressed. By investing in proper journalism education and ethics and thus restoring respect for the journalism trade, some believe the incentive to provide better salaries would follow.

Ideally, all media houses would employ fact-checkers, but at the moment, many media houses in Kenya and Somalia do not take the time to do this because of the “breaking news” competitive environment. So in essence, more “soldiers of truth” are needed on the editorial desks of media houses to fact-check. Media literacy amongst consumers must improve and young people taught how to maneuver in a (social) media world where fake news is rife and to critically consider the information they receive. Finally, governments and consumers must help to push social media tech giants like Facebook and Google to stop fake news on their platforms and restrict the advertisements attached to fake news links that so often make fake news a moneymaking business.

For the time being however, fake news looks like it is here to stay, but the search for solutions in Kenya, Somalia and worldwide continues. As Kenyan editor Catherine Gicheru concluded:

“The lie goes around the world before truth puts on her shoes. Right now, the lies are ahead of us.”