Fake news, a deliberate means of spreading false information via media, is not new.
It has been around since at least the invention of the printing press and over time has been perfected as a way of unduly influencing others – not least in fooling adversaries during times of conflict. It was of course the rise of social media that fuelled its massive spread, as it is now possible for anyone to share information to countless others and to do so simply, instantly and freely.
Kenya, an unusually connected society, has not been left behind, and we are now having to carefully check the authenticity of so much of what is sprayed over us online. In recent times we have observed attacks by rogue social media influencers on companies, especially those in the telecommunications and finance sectors. Safaricom, banks such as Equity, Diamond Trust, Barclays, ABC and Spire, and Unaitas Sacco, are among those that have been victims of fake news, thanks to bloggers and other cyber-operators whose motives often remain unclear.
The assaults follow a familiar pattern. An “exposé” of damaging news is uploaded to an online site, after which the offending article is promoted and circulated heavily in a coordinated manner on social media, with the aim of creating a sense of panic among customers and forcing the institution in question to defend itself in the public eye, thus keeping the negative story alive.
The allegations, that typically cite unnamed “sources”, are repeated over a period of time without credible evidence being provided to support the outrageous claims being made. Often too, the stories evolve into personal attacks against the directors and senior managers of the organisations in question.
And on the subject of sources, while genuine whistleblowing is an important tool through which to promote good governance, there is serious need to ensure it is not used maliciously and irresponsibly.
The rise of fake news in the financial services sector is not exclusive to Kenya. A well-known example is from the US, where in 2017 the Securities and Exchange Commission (its securities markets regulator), filed successful fraud charges against writers of fake bullish articles and against the communications companies that were complicit in a scheme falsely proclaiming that pharmaceutical company ImmunoCellular Therapeutics was developing a superior therapy for cancer.
The paid-for fake stories resulted in the company’s stock price increasing dramatically, with investors who had paid a handsome price for what was an unduly hyped stock ended up losing out badly once the story was revealed as being fake.
Kenya’s regulators, including the Communications Authority, the Central Bank of Kenya, the Insurance Regulatory Authority and the Capital Markets Authority, should borrow from their US counterparts and begin going after those who intentionally distribute fake news designed to cause damage to institutions or to hold them to ransom.
Meanwhile we social media users can take active steps to spot fake news. First we must look at the headline to a story: if it appears too outrageous to be true the chances are it is not. Then we should ask ourselves if the author has a history of writing fake outrageous stories, for if their credibility is suspect the chances are that the story is also not credible.
Next, if such stories do not quote solid sources or offer the parties mentioned a chance to provide their perspective, there is a high probability that they are fake.
It is also good to check if other news sources are covering the story in similar ways. For as far as our media houses are concerned, Kenya’s stringent libel laws and the need to uphold their reputation typically lead them to thoroughly check the authenticity of what they report.
As elsewhere, Kenyans are becoming more skilled at distinguishing the characteristics of fake news and its perpetrators.
But as we browse our endless flow of Tweets, as we skim through our many blogs, as we are tantalised by the juiciness of their revelations and of their vitriolic attacks, we must hold back from merely seeing our biases confirmed, from forwarding that which should not be forwarded, and from being swept away by easy conspiracy-theory assumptions of guilt.