• Irungu Houghton

Digital democracies require fidelity to the truth


With elections related malicious content spiking on social media and a new Council for Responsible Social Media launched this week, perhaps its time to revisit what social media platforms, digital citizens and the algorithms are doing online.


Code for Africa have recorded a 45 per cent increase in malicious online hate-speech across TikTok, FaceBook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram over July. Hateful hashtags have been allowed by the social media platforms and the Kenyan authorities to remain virally alive for up to 24 hours. Fortunately, careful observers have distinguished the types of lies now being designed to drive us crazy. In what we must now see as a form of psychological warfare, the game plan is simple.


Discredit public institutions, polarise and incite citizens along political and ethnic lines, selectively dredge up 2007/8 post-elections violence and humiliate opposing political candidates. Surging across our devices are hundreds of photoshopped images of fake front pages of newspapers and clipped videos of rallies that change the very words coming out of people’s mouths.


The hope by these content creators is that these narratives will reproduce in the real world, a deteriorating faith in electoral processes, the very worst of cancel culture and a heightened sense of public anxiety and fear. Predictably, we are days away from a narrative switch that will fabricate fake 34A forms, rumours of irreparable divisions between state agencies and the unsubstantiated arguments that election results are pre-cooked and there is no point coming out to vote.


How then can we keep ourselves grounded and informed by reliable sources of information, therefore? We must develop a critical mindset that checks the authenticity of sources and who else is reporting the story. We must carefully examine whether information is being exaggerated or designed to feed our own biases, cynicism and sense of helplessness Simple visual editing apps can fundamentally change images in seconds. Just because it sounds official, doesn't mean it is. Even if it is official, it doesn’t mean that the information is factual. Be wary of the fortune-tellers and psychics. They, like us, have no way of determining the future.


Remaining present to what is happening now is the surest way to remain sane. The surest way to keeping others around us sane, is by not posting anything you have not verified as the truth. With probably 30 per cent of Kenyans not accessing news that is empowering or accurate, we all have a responsibility at this time.


Fortunately, a new breed of business and civic agencies has grown in the last couple of years. They include Africa Check, PesaCheck, Fumbua, Code for Africa and Ainfluence among others. They are currently fact-checking suspicious posts across several social media platforms to ensure that “vitu kwa dijito” is not different from “vitu kwa ground”.


This week I joined several civic leaders to launch the Kenyan Council for Social Responsibility. The Council is a non-partisan group of concerned citizens who are committed to holding social media platforms to higher standard of accountability. The launch comes on the back of recent Mozilla Foundation and Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) studies that Twitter, TikTok and FaceBook must do better and invest more in moderating harmful content quickly and decisively.


This week, Global Witness further exposed the vulnerabilities of FaceBook by successfully submitting ten real-life examples of hate-speech in English and Kiswahili boosted by twenty paid adverts. Both English and Kiswahili posts were accepted.


The platforms must effectively manage the algorithmic targeting embedded in their business models and increase their response time to stop and remove advertising from malicious trending content. Should they fail, the platforms remain a significant threat as the country heads to the polls in under fourteen days. The Council is also calling on the ICT Ministry and Communications Authority of Kenya to actively encourage companies to urgently develop and publicly sign a self-regulatory Code of Practice on Disinformation.


These few actions will raise the quality of safety and dignity for all within this digital democracy.


This opinion was also published in the weekly Saturday Standard column 30 July 2022. #StandardSettingKE

For more on the Council for Social Responsibility see here

For the Global Witness investigative report see here

For an example of a Social Disinformation Code see here