Could fake news have saved Kenya from an Internet shutdown?

The Kenya General Elections on 8 August 2017 were not without surprises. In a historic determination, the Supreme Court invalidated the presidential election and ordered a repeat. Unlike many African countries that held elections in the recent past, Kenya did not shut down the Internet during the period. That the Internet remained open may be attributed to many factors. On the one hand, there was concerted advocacy by digital rights groups against a shutdown. On the other, there could have been disruptions that went unreported. But could the Internet have remained open because the government was also using the Internet to its own ends? Will it remain open during the repeat presidential election in October?

In 2016, over half of African countries that held elections shut down the Internet and other communication prior to, during or after elections. The reasons for the shutdowns included to maintain national security and public order. The effect of shutdowns was stalling people from assembling online and offline. Shutdowns also slackened the sharing of information, both useful and harmful. In the words of President Yoweri Museveni Uganda blocked social media in 2016, to “stop people from spreading lies”.

Kenya had, and still has many of the “conditions precedent” for a shutdown in Africa. For starters, it is among Africa’s most connected countries with the Internet providing a space for robust political discourse. In addition, the elections are highly contested and mobilised along ethnic lines. Discussions online often take ethnic leanings leading to vilification of persons or tribes. To avoid content of this nature, authorities had contemplated shutting down the Internet to slow down the dissemination of harmful content but this did not come to pass.

The first explanation for Kenya keeping the Internet open is advocacy efforts by digital rights groups. Since introduction of multi-party politics and promulgation of a new Constitution in 2010, Kenya has been a more open society. Public participation is one of the national values and principles entrenched in the Constitution. Prior to the elections, digital rights groups raised concern about the unilateral plan to shutdown the Internet. They argued that there was no legal basis for a shutdown and called upon authorities to employ other methods to regulate hate speech. As the elections drew closer, authorities changed tune and assured that the Internet would remain open. It did.

Nevertheless, it is suspected that there were direct and indirect disruptions of communications. Unfortunately, there are always quality of service issues with Internet service provision in the country. In order to establish whether suspected disruptions were deliberate or not, there is need for data collection and further analysis. During the period, there were also power outages that could have indirectly kept some off the Internet. Many access the Internet through mobile phones that require charging. While the telecommunications infrastructure is not affected by power failures, consumers are effectively cut off from the Internet when they are unable to access electricity for long periods of time. Again, reports about power cuts need further study and linkage to government orders for one to authoritatively classify the outages as indirect Internet shutdowns.

Harmful Content

Another plausibility why authorities kept the Internet open was to serve the state’s communication interests. As earlier noted, there had been concern that hate speech online would contribute to fragmentation of the society that could result in election related violence. NCIC, the body mandated to regulate hate speech had a count of 250 cases under investigation or prosecution as at September 2017.

Beside outlawed content, the 2017 campaign period has seen a spike in media manipulation- over sensationalised stories, negative campaigning, disinformation and fake news. The content is primarily shared on social media networks such as Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook in many styles- mimicry of real news websites, screenshots of private communication, pictures without context, humorous memes, conspiracy theories, leaked official internal communications and sustained campaigns against particular persons and institutions.

Content such as negative campaigning can easily be traced to the two main political camps. For other content, one may infer the source by analysing whom the message most benefits. The (harmful) effect of manipulative political content is the deepening of polarisation and affirming of beliefs held in political groupings.

Repeat Election

The stakes for the repeat presidential election on 26th October are even higher. Media manipulation mills have upped their game. Juicier stories about different aspects of the political scene are spun by the minute and shared instantly across multiple platforms. Political party supporters are spending hours debating each other on popular social media groups.

Under the current campaign period, efficacy of hate speech laws as well as institutional mandates to maintain public order seem to be over-stretched. Further, the line between harmful speech such as fake news and hate speech is often politicised. Many now worry that the pot may be tipping over. That we are catalysing the conditions not just for an Internet shutdown but bloodshed.

But have we considered all the solutions to Kenya’s speech problems? Have we really listened to what is being said? Would an Internet shutdown take away the sentiments that lead to harmful speech? What more could different actors be doing to resolve the situation? What good practices need amplification?

I am looking forward to the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2017 in Jo’burg where these and other issues will be discussed.