Pollsters fall prey to misinformation campaigns too

Infotrak research manager Johvine Wanyingo

Infotrak research manager Johvine Wanyingo addressing journalists in Nairobi on July 6, 2022. Researchers have not been spared in the disinformation campaigns, as social media users edit their poll results in favour of the candidates they prefer.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

Researchers have not been spared in the disinformation campaigns, as social media users edit their poll results in favour of the candidates they prefer.

Tifa Research CEO Margaret Ireri explained that fake polls with her organisation’s logo have sprouted in the run-up to the elections.

On June 23, Tifa flagged two fake polls. The first showed stratified data of Western Kenya aspirant popularity, focusing on Kakamega, Vihiga and Trans Nzoia counties. The second featured Machakos County, where Nzioka Waita was alleged to be the most preferred gubernatorial candidate with 53 per cent.

The day before, the firm flagged a fake poll that alleged that Dennis Waweru, vying for MP, was the most preferred, with 52 per cent as opposed to his competitor, John Kiarie, who was shown to be at 26 per cent.

Insert fake numbers

“This usually happens when we release poll results, people, we don’t know who, copy our template but insert fake numbers and share that, mostly on WhatsApp groups. Sometimes we find out from fact-checkers who keep us in the loop and then we flag it as fake on our social media handles,” she explained.

Tom Wolf, a lead researcher at Tifa, said the firm had not conducted any polls targeting disinformation, but that during elections, they often seek to find out about Kenyans’ trust in IEBC.

“However, we don't know whether their responses have been influenced by their probable exposure to fake news and disinformation,” he said.

TikTok, Facebook and Twitter all said they have set guidelines to combat misinformation. Twitter told the Nation that its approach to tackle misinformation is based on the highest potential for harm, and that it handles it in a behaviour-first approach. This means monitoring how accounts behave before reviewing the content they post. Twitter is committed to providing a service that fosters and facilitates free and open democratic debate and continues to protect the health of the electoral conversation. We use a combination of technology and human review to identify misleading information. We recently expanded our policy and enforcement to address the rise of misinformation across the world, including developing guidelines for Covid-related misinformation, synthetic and manipulated media, and an updated civic integrity policy,” said a Twitter spokesperson.

Political involvement

Facebook, on the other hand, having history with political involvement as was in the Cambridge Analytica saga, promised to do better.

“We take our responsibility seriously when it comes to helping people participate in safe, secure, and free elections in Kenya. Using lessons from the past, and input from a range of experts, including dedicated and local teams within Meta, we’ve made substantial investments to help take aggressive steps in fighting abuse across our technologies, including reducing the spread of misinformation and harmful content,” said Mercy Ndegwa, public policy director, Eastern Horn of Africa, Meta.

“Over the past year we’ve also launched a range of policies and products aimed at increasing transparency in political advertising, fighting voter interference and promoting civic engagement in the lead up to, and during the elections,” added Ms Ndegwa.

TikTok expressed commitment in protecting its integrity, noting that it had a dedicated team working to safeguard the app during the Kenyan elections.

“We prohibit and remove election misinformation, promotion of violence, and other violations of our policies and partner with accredited fact-checkers, including Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Kenya.

“We’re also engaging locally with NGOs and will roll out product features to connect our community with authoritative information about the Kenyan elections in our app,”a TikTok spokesperson said.

Lacuna in the law

Even with the proliferation of fake news and mis(dis)information, there is a lacuna in the law on whether to jail, or not to jail people spreading misinformation. Advocate Shadrack Kipkorir explains that freedom of speech as enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya 2010 is a basic human right with express limitations couched in exclusive terms.

“The limitations are that free speech does not extend to propaganda for war, incitement to violence, hate speech and advocacy of hatred. The sanctity and significance of this right is beyond doubt as it is one of the few rights with express constitutional limitations. This right includes the right to lie and to make false statements,” he said.

In Kenya, explained Mr Kipkorir, there is no law that criminalises false speech.

On March 3, 2017, the United Nations released a joint declaration on freedom of expression and fake news, disinformation and propaganda, to address the “growing prevalence of disinformation and propaganda in legacy and social media, fueled by both state and non-state actors, and the various harms to which they may be a contributing factor or primary cause.”

They noted that disinformation and propaganda are often designed and implemented to mislead a population, and to interfere with the public’s right to know.

They emphasised that some forms of disinformation and propaganda have the ability to harm individual reputations and privacy, or incite to violence, discrimination or hostility against identifiable groups in society.