Fact-checking Kenya’s repeat presidential election

How a team of fact-checkers worked to make sense of the conversations during and immediately after election day

The emergence of fake news in the lead up to the August 8, 2017 elections was unprecedented. Kenyans were inundated with fake news, inaccurate polls and misleading ads. This proliferation is not unique to Kenya, as a similar phenomenon has been experienced during elections in the US, Germany and France. The jury if still out on whether the sophisticated ad campaigns adopted by the ruling Jubilee coalition had any impact on the outcome. What is however clear, it was and is still imperative to counter the narratives of the fake news purveyors.

In the period leading up to the August 2017 presidential election, a study by Portland Communications showed that nine out of ten Kenyans had encountered fake news in one form or another, showing just how prevalent the phenomenon has become in the country. This rise is driven in part by the proliferation of so-called ‘dark social’ networks, where messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram are used to spread misinformation to great effect.

The petition challenging the outcome of the August 8 election led to a surge in fake news and propaganda against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and its commissioners. The stories then shifted to the Supreme Court judges after they nullified the presidential election and ordered a repeat.

Fake opinion poll

The period leading up to the repeat presidential election saw a significant amount of fake news. One particular item that stands out is this one of a fake poll circulated to media houses claiming that the main presidential candidates President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, were neck-and-neck. A popular radio station unwittingly became the purveyor of the fake opinion poll which had been published on a parody site of an internationally recognised opinion polling firm, Ipsos Synovate.

Ahead of the repeat election, Code for Kenya, PesaCheck and the Election Observation Group set up a partnership which established a team to verify claims in real time. Using Check, developed by Meedan, the team was able to check claims made on social media as well as on mainstream media over a 72-hour period from October 26,2017.

Check had been used during the US election through Electionland, a ProPublica project to monitor, filter, and make sense of the social signals coming from polling places across the country. This was the first time that the platform was used in a Kenyan election.

Fact-checking tools

The verification team comprised of six Daystar University journalism and students. The team was based at the media monitoring office at ELOG’s Nairobi headquarters. The student volunteers were from a class of 35 who underwent training on verification and fact checking carried out by Code for Kenya Lead and ICFJ Knight Fellow Catherine Gicheru and myself. The students learnt the basics of fact checking and verification including how to do Reverse Image Search to check the veracity of an image, identifying the individuals tweeting using a particular hashtag through Twazzup, and revealing who actually owns a website using Whois.

The six volunteers also learnt how to use Check to help verify incident reports and claims coming from ELOG observers and from social media. The verification was done through interviewing individuals on the ground where incidents were being reported as well as cross-checking with the election observors and their networks.

ELOG deployed 2,196 observers in in all parts of the country except in ten counties where security was uncertain. These observers filed hourly incident reports which required to be quickly and accurately be verified so that ELOG could take appropriate action.

Majority of the claims received in the opening hours of Election day revolved around voter turnout and intimidation. To identify claims to be fact-checked, we adopted a six-step process:

  1. What is the claim?
  2. Who made the claim?
  3. What time was the claim made?
  4. Where was the claim published/broadcast?
  5. Is the claim true or false?
  6. What response is needed?

Instead of a meter, the following terms Verified (if the claim was found to be true), In Progress, (if a claim was not immediately verifiable and required further checking), or False (where the claim was found to be an outright lie). Those claims that we were not able to conclusively check due to limited evidence were marked as Inconclusive.

From the banks of televisions installed in the media monitoring room, we were able to keep track of what was being broadcast and the claims being made.

All checks that the team conducted were included in the hourly updates filed by the ELOG’s situation reports and informed the press statements that ELOG issued before during and after the election.

Staying ahead of the curve

An interesting pattern soon emerged. Reports of disturbances would show up on social media roughly 15 to 45 minutes before they were reported in mainstream media.

Reports from Kawangware, which saw violent exchanges and property damage on election day.

In essence, the fact checking team was able to stay ‘ahead of the curve’ because we kept monitoring what was happening on social media.

There were also interesting events that the mainstream media and journalists overlooked. For example, the fact that voting was conducted and went on peacefully in some constituencies of Nyanza where the election boycott was reported by the media to have been total. This fact would have informed any reporting that was done after the IEBC announced a repeat of the voting in Migori County and other counties in Nyanza and Western Kenya.

There were numerous images of ‘ghost’ polling stations where idle IEBC staff sat waiting for voters were to show up. One photo that went viral was of an official playing on a child’s swing. According to the claim, the photo was taken in Turkana, but the vegetation and the soil type are not common in the area.

With images and reports of prominent persons casting their votes came in, we were able to determine that Shakhalaga Jirongo, ( one of the seven presidential candidates ) did not actually vote. A quick check with the ELOG observer at his constituency showed that not only did Jirongo not vote, he only got a total of 14 votes!

The most interesting claim we handled was one that said voters in Mumias were being bribed to come out to vote. The ELOG observer in Mumias West interviewed scores of the residents in the specific area. They confirmed to the observer that some individuals had indeed been going door to door offering money to voters to come out and vote. This is an election offence and due to our check, ELOG was able to alert the IEBC officials.

In total we made more than 200 calls to ELOG’s observers, tracked more than 100 claims and found one in five of these to be outright falsehoods. The most obvious falsehoods were the fake memos published using letterheads mimicking the opposition National Super Alliance (Nasa)’s logo and colors. One of the statements purported to be an invitation from Raila Odinga to his presidential swearing in ceremony which was to be held at Uhuru Park on October 27.

Cutting out the noise

Fact-checking claims can help in cutting out the noise during a crisis and preventing panic. This is what good journalism is all about. By countering misinformation with facts, journalists can help combat the menace of fake news and direct audiences to factual and accurate information.

Our experience has shown that there is a real need for realtime fact-checking, particularly in tense times such as during elections. Journalists must look at social media not only as a place to break news but also to gather useful information — and they need to fact-checked and verify it before publication.

Do you want us to fact-check something a politician or other public figure has said about public finances? Write to us on any of the contacts below, and we’ll help ensure you’re not getting bamboozled.

This report was written by PesaCheck Managing Editor Eric Mugendi and edited by Code for Kenya lead Catherine Gicheru.

PesaCheck, co-founded by Catherine Gicheru and Justin Arenstein, is East Africa’s first fact-checking initiative. It seeks to help the public separate fact from fiction in public pronouncements about the numbers that shape our world, with a special emphasis on pronouncements about public finances that shape government’s delivery of public services related to the Sustainable Development Goals, such as healthcare, rural development, and access to water and sanitation. PesaCheck also tests the accuracy of media reportage. To find out more about the project, visit pesacheck.org

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PesaCheck is a joint initiative of Code for Africa, through its local Code for Kenya chapter, and the International Budget Partnership (Kenya), in partnership with a coalition of local media organisations, with additional support from the International Center for Journalists(ICFJ).

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