20 March, 2018
Just before Kenya's elections last year, videos from American broadcaster Cable News Network (CNN) started appearing on social media.
The videos looked like they were from a CNN broadcast. They claimed that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was by far the most popular candidate in a study of likely voters.
But the CNN broadcast was fake. The Associated Press (AP) says someone combined part of a CNN Philippines report and other videos. The station's famous red logo was added at the bottom of the picture.
The news agency noted a problem involving a video thought to be from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). That video had a photograph reportedly showing Kenyan security forces killing protesters. In fact, the photo was taken in Tanzania.
The AP said thousands of other false reports and blog posts appeared on the popular messaging app WhatsApp during the Kenyan election campaign. They fueled divisions and unrest in an election that has led to a major political crisis.
Now, the United States is preparing to fight fake news — not at home, but in Kenya, where U.S. officials want to help strengthen the country's democratic system of government.
"Information is, of course, power, and... fake news is a real danger," U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec told the AP. He added that it had destroyed public trust in Kenya's real news media. "It's being weaponized. It's undermining democracy in Kenya," he said.
Earlier this month, the U.S. ambassador sent an email to the 47,000 members of the State Department's Young African Leaders Initiative. Godec asked them to promise to prevent the spread of fake media. He wants them to confirm the source and truthfulness of stories before passing the information along to others through social media.
For a time, the hashtag #StopReflectVerify was the No. 2 trending hashtag on Twitter in Kenya, where the U.S. Embassy pushed it to its 256,000 followers.
In addition to offering tools to help identify differences between fact and fake, the campaign involves a three-day training program for public affairs officials in Kenyan counties. It urges local governments to be more open and helpful to reporters so that they have an easier time confirming information they hear.
The program is expected to expand to an Africa-wide international fact-checking day and a worldwide event on World Press Freedom Day in May.
The decision to fight fake news in Kenya appears to be the opposite of what is happening in the United States. President Donald Trump has used the term to insult media that publish critical stories about him or his administration.
Trump has also downplayed claims that false information from less-than-truthful sources may have had an effect on the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Last month, a special investigator announced charges against 13 Russians. They are accused of using fake social media accounts and political messages to fuel divisions in the vote.
The campaign also comes as U.S. officials have been warning Kenya's government about worrisome restrictions on the news media. The group Human Rights Watch has said Kenyan officials try to stop stories critical of the government by threatening reporters.
The United States was very concerned in February when Kenya told major broadcasters to suspend operations after opposition leader Raila Odinga held a make-believe swearing-in ceremony.
In Kenya, the fake news problem has also raised fears about violence brought on by false facts that often spread on social media before they can be stopped.
At election time, a fake but realistic-looking U.S. diplomatic cable appeared on social media. The message appeared to show U.S. officials predicting celebratory violence and a collapse of law and order if Odinga were to defeat Kenyatta in the election.
The U.S. embassy quickly released its own version of the cable with the word "FAKE" written in red letters.
Yet there are risks for the U.S. government in appearing to tell people what to believe, say or not say in Kenya, a former British colony. So the embassy is trying to show that the campaign is a local operation. It has partnered with groups like AfricaCheck, a fact-checking website.
"We're not asking them to believe any particular thing," Ambassador Godec said. "We're just saying, don't take everything you see on your phone via WhatsApp as the truth because it may not be."
I'm Susan Shand.
Josh Lederman reported this story for the Associated Press. Susan Shand adapted his report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
fake – adj. meant to look real or genuine but not real or genuine
trending – v. to be popular
affairs – n. work or activities done for a purpose
fact-checking – adj. of or relating to confirming the truthfulness of something
account – n. a deal in which a person uses the Internet or email services of a company
cable – n. a diplomatic message
source – n. someone or something that provides what is needed
undermining – adj. of or related to weakness or making something less effective
app – n. a computer software program for a mobile device, such as a smartphone
logo – n. an identifying sign (pften used in advertising)