In the case of COVID-19, disinformation can occur when there is an intention to create a different viewpoint from that of vetted healthcare officials and authorities regarding the disease’s status, spread, prevalence, and management. While this phenomenon has been heavily studied in the U.S. and many European countries, parts of the developing world, such as Kenya, have been neglected. This is harmful if the world as a whole is committed to ending the pandemic.
Kenya has an increasingly large population of urban residents using smartphones as a primary form of internet connectivity. Social engagement through smartphone applications has enabled Kenya to become a pioneer in digital consumption and innovation. The Global System for Mobile Communications estimates that the country will have seven million new mobile subscribers before 2025. In traditional Kenyan media, television accessed through free-to-air TV is the most popular, with radio also having a significant reach.
COVID-19 affected the Kenyan media in three main ways: First, it brought disinformation into Kenyan mass media. The prevalence of disinformation in Kenya’s mass media creates a worrisome outlook for public health initiatives, especially regarding the management of the COVID-19 pandemic. About 75% of Kenyans surveyed by Reuters agreed it was difficult for them to differentiate between “real and fake news on the internet.” Over 50% of the survey respondents also confirmed they had come across false information about health or COVID-19 in the previous week by way of Kenyan mass media. By April 2020, Kenyans were well aware of the severity of the pandemic and disinformation began circulating online about the government’s response, including claims that the government needed a confirmed COVID-19 case to gain access to a global fund set for curbing the disease were reported. False pretenses like these shed doubt on the authenticity of the information the government was providing as many Kenyans believed that officials would embezzle funds.
Second, social media forced mainstream media to make reactionary adjustments in order to maintain integrity given the rapid increase in fake news. The rise in social media engagement set the stage for trending topics and subsequent debates and investigations, making it difficult to differentiate between truth and hearsay. Social media’s reliance on images made peddling conspiracy theories considerably easier as the use of bravado and hyperbole continued to outperform accurate and factual reporting.
Third, the financial structures behind disinformation schemes in the media remain vague. When the agenda favors the government’s position on a public issue, it is difficult to know whether actors in the media are acting independently or are being coerced by the government. In 2021, Kenya witnessed campaigns by various political groups in the country with regard to their support or opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), a controversial proceeding to amend the constitution. Informational campaigns on social media using hashtags to promote pro-BBI content were found to be run by paid actors making between $10 and $15 daily for disinformative tweets to directly attack the country’s judiciary. Poverty in the country has made young people more vulnerable to economic incentives for disinformation, the success of which can be attributed to easy mobile payments to individuals involved in such campaigns. The pandemic has hit the world economy badly and young people are struggling to find employment opportunities – with the business of disinformation growing these two dynamics could create a perfect storm.
Overall, the trend in the promotion of political agendas through disinformation on social media using paid participants has cast doubt on the authenticity of the trending healthcare topics in the same platforms that cover COVID-19. As a reaction, Kenyan stakeholders tried to counter COVID-19 disinformation.
First, media houses engaged healthcare experts in their reporting to advocate for health measures and dispel myths on COVID-19. Rumors that the virus only affected wealthy people and that people living in Sub-Saharan Africa were immune to the virus had adverse implications on the degree of preparedness in terms of precautionary measures taken by the government and public health agencies.
Second, the Kenyan Ministry of Health continuously used official government media announcements to condemn leaders who were actively spreading false information about the virus, including disputing the veracity of claims that thousands of people were in mandatory quarantine and that the government was hiding the true numbers of those affected. This was largely connected to the fact that fear was a key motivator that helped drive the spread of misinformation, with some people in outright denial about the existence of the virus and others believing in miracle cures being touted on social media.
Finally, the government stepped up its involvement with daily media updates through televised addresses and detailed statements focused on highlighting preventative measures for the pandemic. The National Emergency Response Committee was also created to guide the initiatives of different government agencies in responding to disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. This included setting up a toll-free shortcode to offer the public information on the virus. Further, the Communication Authority of Kenya (CA) waived regulatory fees for toll-free numbers for public and private broadcast entities that provided advisories on COVID-19 so they could air public service announcements at no cost and increase access to correct information about the pandemic and prevention or control measures.
Streamlining the flow of information, minimizing confusion, and preventing harmful risk-taking behaviors are the cornerstones of effective COVID-19 management. Rampant corruption in the country, however, continues to stint these efforts. The lack of government preparedness also demotivated the public from participating in preventative measures against the spread of the virus. Despite increases in the amount of verifiable information available on COVID-19, the lack of transparency in the supply chain of COVID-related kits and medication is still a major cause for public disinformation. Many Kenyans remain skeptical of the government’s management of the pandemic citing concerns about fake testing kits and untested cures as primary reasons for their continued distrust.
Hannan Abdikadir (she/her/hers) is a freelance writer and photographer currently enrolled as an undergraduate student at The University of Texas majoring in Journalism and Advertising.