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Fake news, propaganda and the role of the media before and during elections

As we enter the homestretch to the August 8 General Election, Kenyans will continue to witness heightened political engagements online and offline on who is better suited to represent the people at the county and national levels.

Because of past incidents such as the 2007-2008 post-election violence, the government is concerned that people might go too far in their quest for votes.

The National Cohesion and Integration Commission and the Communications Authority of Kenya have said they are monitoring social media, blogs and even WhatsApp groups in order to detect hate speech and fake news that might threaten the peace.

Fake news is content written and published with the intent to mislead in order to gain politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false foundations.

Fake news undermines serious media coverage and makes it more difficult for journalists to cover significant news stories.

FAKE NEWS

To an untrained eye, fake news may pass as legitimate news sources. Fake news should not be confused or conflated with propaganda.

Propaganda means information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicise a particular political cause or point of view.

It is  used primarily to further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis or perception to produce an emotional rather than a rational response.

The proliferation of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp has increased political polarisation and the spread of fake news and propaganda.

One would have thought that the free flow of information would translate into a more informed populace that would make more informed choices. However, recent global and national trends show the contrary.

MARKETPLACE

The Internet and social media are a double-edged sword that can be used for good and bad. The adage that “in the marketplace of ideas, good ideas and the truth will trounce bad ones and falsities in the long run”, is being debunked in front of our eyes.

In reality, authoritarian governments, political operatives, racists, tribalists, sexists, bigots and bullies have learned how to efficiently use and control the Internet, especially social media.

In Kenya, tribe, religion and political affiliation are often capitalised on to appeal to ignorance and prejudice and demonise others.

Armies of what appear to be paid online users and bloggers, work tirelessly to control the political narrative at the expense of honest political discourse and the truth.

There have been instances where the media have bitten the bait and perpetuated fake news.

COMPETING INTERESTS

As a result, a potent mix of fake news, propaganda and hate speech is spewed by operatives speaking on behalf of the government, the opposition or other competing interests.

In this post-fact era, mainstream media must invest in quality journalism and media literacy by making it mandatory to fact check and verify sources and develop a robust corrections policy when mistakes do occur.

Mainstream media must earn the trust of the people by being fair and balanced especially with regard to national issues.

They must hold leaders feet to the fire in the spirit of transparency and accountability.

CREDIBILITY

The fastest way media lose credibility is if they are seen to be colluding with state actors and corporations at the expense of public interest.

During the elections, Kenyans will depend on the media to disseminate issues. They will scrutinise the IEBC, police, the Executive, political parties and the Judiciary and hold them to account on their mandates and obligations.

The media must sift through propaganda and fake news and disseminate the truth. After all, media act as the watchdog to protect public interest against malpractice and create awareness.

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