Following drastic changes to its constitution, along with a notably peaceful election cycle, Kenya seemed to be making great strides in its democracy during the 2010s decade. However, the pervasion of fake news in the East African country has begun to hinder this progress, affecting everything from elections to free speech.
It was with forward-looking eyes that many welcomed the results of Kenya’s 2013 elections. With instances of ethnic violence plaguing the 1997 election and endless human rights abuses surrounding the 2007 vote, the comparatively calm election cycle in 2013 brought with it a hope of democracy blessing the country.
Yet recent trends concerning the growth of fake news in Kenya have dashed these hopes, causing the country’s partly-free democracy to devolve. The election cycle in 2017 saw Cambridge Analytica, the same company whose controversial role in the United States’ 2016 election made headlines, push falsified information over social media that supported the re-election of incumbent candidate Uhuru Kenyatta. Ironically, since returning to office, Kenyatta has also signed a bill into law that criminalizes the spread of what the government deems to be “false information,” leading some to worry that the Kenyatta administration could use this law to target media that paint him in a bad light. From misleading information meddling with elections to the criminalization of such information extending the government’s control on what is deemed “true,” the idea of fake news appears to be playing multiple roles in chipping away at democracy in Kenya.
First, let’s focus on the role of fake news in influencing the outcome of the 2017 presidential election. In an undercover video filmed by Channel 4 News, two chief officials of the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica are filmed explaining how they “rebranded [Kenyatta’s] entire party twice,” engaged in “huge amounts of research, analysis, [and] messaging,” and influenced “just about every element of [Kenyatta’s] campaign.” An article from the New York Times also confirms reports of local Kenyan media that Kenyatta’s party, the Jubilee Party, hired Cambridge Analytica for his 2017 campaign.
While Cambridge Analytica denied claims that their company promoted fabricated news in the country, others, such as Muhammad Nyamwanda, director of digital media for Kenyatta’s opposition alliance, hesitate to trust the words of the controversial firm. He notes that a surge of false information was easily observed leading up to the election. Such information ranges from deceivingly edited CNN and BBC reports claiming that Kenyatta was leading in the polls more than he was in reality to videos circulated around social media depicting an apocalyptic Kenya under Raila Odinga’s – Kenyatta’s opponent during the election – rule. Kenyatta did go on to win the 2017 election and take office that same year, even in spite of an election rerun issued due to a “lack of transparency.”
The role of fake news in decaying democracies has been commented on by many scholars before. In their book How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, law professors Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z. Huq note that in their efforts to control the public sphere (which includes social media, newspaper, and other institutions that hold elected officials accountable), increasingly autocratic states may “simply pollute it so much that it becomes ill-suited for democratic ends” . In the case of Kenya, Cambridge Analytica’s work concerning Kenyatta’s campaign certainly seems to be a notable example of media being utilized to skew information, in turn affecting what is seen as “true” during what should be a legitimate, democratic election.
The distortion of the truth may also be seen with Kenyatta’s law aiming to restrict the flow of false information in the country. Despite the fact that “fake news” appeared to work to the incumbent’s benefit during the 2017 election, Kenyatta signed in 2018 the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, which includes a fine of 5,000,000 shillings ($50,000) and/or two years of jail time to be issued to those found spreading falsified news. Some fear, however, that this law could simply be used by Kenyatta to attack dissenters, leading to limited free speech in the country.
Such fears are not unfounded. Ginsburg and Huq also mention in their book how Russia’s Vladmir Putin criminalized “the spread of false information discrediting the honor and dignity of another person or undermining his reputation.” This ended up being used for anti-democratic means as journalists were jailed for reporting stories on abuse by the government . Kenyan online news source The Star has already noticed that individuals have been similarly targeted by the “false information” section of the law to deter reports critical of the government or high-ranking officials. As Kenya continues to place in the lower half of countries around the world in relation to press freedom, it becomes important to further monitor how Kenyatta’s 2018 law may be secretly used to target news deemed detrimental to his administration.
It is thus in two ways that we see fake news influence democracy in Kenya. First, the prevalence of false information concerning the 2017 election created an environment in which distinguishing fact from fiction proved difficult, ultimately serving in favor of incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta. Furthermore, Kenyatta’s effort to crack down on fake news further emboldened the government in silencing media sources that condemn their actions. As Kenya prepares for another presidential election this August, it is crucial that eyes both in the country and abroad watch over the election carefully. The Kenyan people deserve to move away from the violence and controversies that plagued past elections, with access to accurate information about presidential candidates and the power to safely air their concerns about the government ensuring that they may finally catch a true glimpse of democracy. Ginsburg, Tom, and Aziz Z. Huq. How to Save a Constitutional Democracy. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2020.