‘Fake news’ and the need for speed

Misinformation. Disinformation. Malinformation. Collectively, Kenyans call these terms ‘fake news’, and are extremely familiar with the concept. But each sub-genre is unique in its intent, and all three were the subject of a panel discussion titled ‘Misinformation and how mainstream media can counter it’, held at the Africa Media Festival in mid-February this year.

The panel was hosted by Wanjiru Nguhi, programme manager for Fumbua, a Baraza Media Lab program that seeks to stop the spread of mis-, dis-, and malinformation. Joining her were fact-checkers Alphonce Shiundu, head of Africa Check and Doreen Wainaina of Pesacheck; Nkirote Koome from media advocacy firm (and Baraza partner) Luminate,, and Odanga Madung, a data journalist and fellow with the Mozilla Foundation.

But first, how do these three sub-genres differ from each other? ‘Disinformation’ is perhaps the most malevolent of the three – it is fake news that is deliberately created and disseminated to skew a narrative or defame personalities. ‘Misinformation’ is fake news that is innocently spread by someone who assumes it is true. ‘Malinformation’ is content that is otherwise true, but presented in a context other than that in which it was created, to slander or misrepresent the people or entities that are the subject of said content.

False information is not a new concept. It has existed since human beings began to communicate with each other. However, the digitisation of news dissemination has made it easier and faster for fake news to spread. As Mr Shiundu puts it: “[In the past] there used to be chain emails. It has moved to creating (false news) and dumping it on TikTok where the audience is magnified. The scale is phenomenal.”

During last year’s run-up to Kenya’s general elections, for example, one particularly frightening video maligning a popular presidential candidate racked up 505,000 views – and that’s on TikTok alone, without accounting for shares on dark-social platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram, where views and clicks are extremely difficult to track.

Moreover, false information is not unique to Kenya. Ms Wainaina cited the very respected BBC who, in December 2022, “…published a story about a woman who gave birth to 10 babies.” It turned out to be false. “Then came the retraction. This is the BBC. This is misinformation that the media actively participated in spreading.”

Mainstream media is, predictably, finding it difficult to keep up with these shenanigans. Already burdened by significant revenue losses over the years due to the rising popularity of competing digital content distribution platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, and also by shrinking newsrooms as more journalists are laid off, short-staffed newsrooms are under pressure to find and share news as quickly as they can.

Good journalism dictates that journalists verify all information they share by providing supporting documents, seeking out on-the-record quotes, and finding photographic evidence to support their content.

However, with increasing pressure to catch up with quick-sharing social platforms and content creators, more newsrooms are adopting a digital-first policy, which often means journalists sending snackable, share-worthy tidbits to their news editors within minutes of finding them for the purposes of this ‘breaking news’ being shared on the media houses’ social platforms as soon as possible.

In the hands of an inexperienced news editor who doesn’t have enough background to establish the gaps in information in these multiple pieces of snackable content being sent their way, this is often a recipe for disaster.

For example, in early February, on an otherwise quiet Tuesday night, news suddenly broke that former Interior CS Dr Fred Matiang’i’s house was under siege as police officers swooped in to arrest him for unknown reasons.

Journalists arrived at the scene almost as soon as they found out – but none of them got close enough to the house to establish the facts that night. Despite this critical information gap, reporters on the ground still sent back to news editors eager to break the news the requisite posts and tweets about the ‘siege’. However – and critically – there was no photographic or documentary proof of an actual raid.

The next day, the Kenya Police Service and the Directorate of Criminal Investigations both denied sending officers to Dr Matiang’i’s house. Dr Matiang’i himself did not speak to media about the alleged raid. To this day, it is not clear whether there really were police officers at the house, and neither did the journalists at the scene record any such activity. Was this misinformation? Disinformation? Malinformation? Or simply a case of mainstream media carelessness while in a hurry to ‘break the news’ before social media did?

For many decades, fact-checking has largely been left to newsroom editors. It is their job to check the names, dates, numbers and documents while reporters run around collecting the evidence of the story. But in this digital dispensation, with the need for speed as it is – and as Mr Shiundu pointed out – fact-checking should become part of a reporter’s roster of tasks rather than being a solo service. “If journalists do not have the skill to fact-check by themselves, then this is problematic. Fact-checking needs to be integrated into (basic) journalism learning.”

Data journalist Odanga Madung clarified the role mainstream media has to play within this misinformation ecosystem, using the example of the tallying centres that media houses set up during the 2022 General Election elections to keep viewers informed of the numbers as they were counted, under the guise of staying transparent. “Just after elections, we were all tallying officers,” he said. And this was true. But because each media house had its own tallying centre, each media house chose which ward, constituency, county and presidential candidate to focus on, resulting in very uneven tallying across all media houses, and the public perhaps applying confirmation bias to choose the media house that showed their preferred candidate winning.

As it happens, media houses in Kenya now also lean on external fact-checkers – businesses such as Africa Check – to assist, especially during crucial moments like the last General Election. But this is often an expensive venture for cash-strapped media businesses, not to mention the fact that the vast majority of these organisations are small outfits that cannot afford to pay for external services, and often do not have enough staff on board to play the multiple roles journalists find themselves playing these days. “Fact checking is expensive and exhausting,” Ms Koome pointed out.  “It’s a finite resource.” And when coming up against well-funded organisations with agendas to sell, it’s hard for the media to counter false information. “Fact checkers are outspent by campaigns 100-1,” Ms Koome noted.

“Look at how deep and powerful tech companies are. Their tentacles go far,” Mr Madung added. “They dictate what fact checkers can and cannot do. TikTok has a ‘god mode’ that allows their engineers to make any content they choose to go viral. That’s the sort of power they have and how corruptible it is.”

Over at Twitter HQ, billionaire Elon Musk has basically eliminated fact-checking and allowed all sorts of conspiracy theorists to thrive. “Who is the biggest lobbyist in America? Facebook and Google. Why are they sending all that money to politicians? The Arab Spring saw tech businesses position themselves as champions of freedom, but they are conflict profiteers.”

He also pointed at a key sticking point for profit-making media businesses: “Media is also held hostage by corporate interests that interfere with the truthful reporting of their affairs.”

As a result, trust has become a huge concern for mainstream media. The term ‘githeri media’, coined by the Uhuru Kenyatta administration in the run-up to 2017’s General Election, shows just how much public trust in mainstream media has been eroded. With media being regarded as the villain, how can it go about countering viral false information?

“It’s important that mainstream media takes some responsibility,” said Ms Wainaina. “What we need to do is evaluate what content we’re putting out, by monitoring every headline  and every story you share.” And this involves investment in skilled journalism manpower with the ability to discern false information rather than simply regurgitating quotes from key personalities.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Mr Shiundu noted.” When we speak about preventing [the spread of false information], it’s about making people understand [what it is]. Mainstream media can collaborate with content creators and tech platforms. They have the tools, and they can amplify the truth.”

By Wayua Muli

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