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Tackling fake news in Kenya: A UN Resident Coordinator blog

Unsplash/Nijwam Swargiary Fake news - news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false and designed to manipulate people’s perceptions of reality - has been used to influence politics.

Facing down a tidal wave of disinformation ahead of Kenya’s presidential elections in 2022, the Government and the UN collaborated on a national anti-hate speech plan and an innovative consortium of influencers to calm the waters before voters cast their ballots.

Stephen Jackson, the UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya, reflects on the 2022 elections, which saw an effective partnership with the Government and private-sector rise to the occasion to take down fake news.

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“No one is born with hate. Hate is taught, and then hate spreads.

Over recent years, social media and other digital platforms, amplified by algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI), have enabled vitriolic messages with hatred and disinformation to ‘spread like wildfire’, as the Secretary-General has stated.

In many countries around the world – rich and less well off – hate speech and disinformation threaten social cohesion, sowing chaos and confusion, polarizing communities, igniting online and sometimes offline violence, and undermining faith in democracy itself.

Kenya has been no exception.

‘Avalanches of hateful messaging’

Hate speech and disinformation are at their most destabilizing during electoral periods, when avalanches of hateful messaging and divergent, destabilizing narratives confuse voters to distinguish between fact and falsehood, and between ‘truth’ and conspiracy theories.

In Kenya, according to a Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism survey, 75 per cent of respondents said that they found it hard to distinguish between what is real and what is fake when it comes to news on the internet.

Recognizing the scale of this threat ahead of the 2022 presidential elections, the Government of Kenya and our team at the Resident Coordinator’s office jumped into action.

‘Milestone’ anti-hate speech action plan

In June 2022, Kenya launched a national action plan against hate speech, as part of its long-term Roadmap for Peaceful Elections, which was designed to curb and prevent disinformation and inflammation via social media and to inform peaceful counter-messaging.

Having helped Kenya to develop this milestone plan, the United Nations was equally determined to help find innovative ways to support its implementation.

The first step was ensuring that the competent Kenyan institutions gained the ability to track and monitor hate speech in real-time and understand the environment in which they proliferate.

© UN Women/Kennedy Okoth Two women seeking to become part of the political process in Kenya exchange ideas.
Countering hate speech in real-time

Given how complex and fast-moving social media is, this task couldn’t be done alone. It needed pulling together a multistakeholder partnership, with buy-in from different partners: government, civil society, local influencers, and the media platforms themselves.

Thanks to the convening capacities that come with the role of UN Resident Coordinator and the invaluable work of our advisors on peace and development and human rights, we were able to do just that.

We helped the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) and the Media Council of Kenya to create an innovative, high-tech consortium with private sector partners to track and counter hate speech in real-time.

State-of-the-art online early warning system

With support from the UN Peacebuilding Fund and the German Embassy in Kenya, our Kenya-wide Mapema (early in Swahili) Consortium partnered with AI startups (Code for Africa), youth media platforms (Shujaaz) and online influencer organizations (Aifluence) to build a state-of-the-art online early warning system.

This system had the capacity to not only detect the sources and spreaders of misinformation, tracking in real time in English, Swahili, and Sheng, the street language of Kenyan youth.

Combined with existing systems to monitor other traditional media channels, we were able to help the competent Kenyan institutions paint a more vivid picture of the networks and influencers which were amplifying the disinformation.

Keeping up the good fight

But, we can’t stop here. Beyond the election, it’s incumbent on all international partners like the UN to help Kenya further deepen her remarkable democracy. A big part of doing that is the ongoing fight to strengthen accountability mechanisms and bolster the Government’s long-term capacity to stop the spread and mitigate the pernicious impact of hate speech on Kenya’s public life.”

 

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