Kenya campaign ends, but disinformation battle drags on

Published August 8, 2022
Nairobi: Kenya’s opposition leader and presidential candidate Raila Odinga attends a prayer session in 
the National Assembly on Sunday in the run-up to elections.—Reuters
Nairobi: Kenya’s opposition leader and presidential candidate Raila Odinga attends a prayer session in the National Assembly on Sunday in the run-up to elections.—Reuters

NAIROBI: The campaign for Kenya’s presidential election has officially closed but the relentless — and dangerous — flow of disinformation continues online, as keyboard warriors battle to discredit rivals by sharing fake rigging claims, experts say.

Campaigners for the frontrunners, Deputy President William Ruto and veteran politician Raila Odinga, are circulating dozens of posts claiming that their opponent is engaged in “vote rigging plots”, said Benedict Manzin, a sub-Saharan Africa analyst at UK-based intelligence firm Sibylline.

“We are increasingly seeing false information which seeks to delegitimise the results of the election with widespread claims that the opposing side would only win through fraud and that they are attempting to steal the election,” Manzin said.

In one case, a strategist for Ruto’s campaign accused Odinga’s team of trying to rig Tuesday’s poll because the 77-year-old urged the election commission to use a manual voter register instead of a digital one.

Meanwhile a pro-Odinga blogger tweeted that Ruto was attempting to steal the election, sharing a link to an unrelated video — since taken down — of a politician discussing an old scandal.

Mary Blankenship, a disinformation researcher at the University of Nevada, said the circulation of baseless fraud claims could cause real harm, especially in a country where past polls have been followed by an eruption of violence.

“It creates an avenue for either of the candidates to discredit the outcome of the polls, which could lead to unrest,” Blankenship said. She likened the situation to the 2020 US election when former president Donald Trump’s fraud claims culminated in an attack on the US Capitol by his supporters.

More than 1,100 people died in politically motivated inter-ethnic clashes in Kenya following the bitterly disputed 2007 elections.

A decade later, dozens died during a police crackdown on protests after the 2017 presidential poll which was later annulled by the Supreme Court due to “irregularities and illegalities”.

Fabricated opinion polls

Fact-checking organisations — including AFP Fact Check — have debunked hundreds of false and misleading claims about the Kenyan elections.

Both sides have sought to cast aspersions on their opponent’s educational qualifications, claiming that Odinga lied about studying engineering in Germany and that Ruto falsified his university grades. These claims were debunked by fact-checkers but trended on Twitter for days.

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2022

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