Forbes: Kenya's Election Proves Fake News Is A Serious Threat To International Security
This piece was co-authored with Sachin Maini
Social media feeds are overflowing with deceitful stories. Barack Obama is urging calm and for all participants to "work together no matter the outcome,” but accusations of hacking are throwing the legitimacy of the results into question.
It’s not Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton that we’re talking about here - it’s last week’s election in Kenya.
On August 8, voters mobilized to choose their next leader in a tightly competitive race between incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga. Although Kenya’s election commission declared Kenyatta the winner on Friday, Odinga has refused to concede, calling the election a charade. This weekend protests turned violent, resulting in over twenty deaths. It is the worst outbreak of political violence since the disputed election of 2007, which led to the deaths of over 1,000 people.
For months there have been reports of false information proliferating across the country. Forged reports from CNN, BBC, and Daily Nation have been widely shared, while prominent NGOs have had to publicly disavow fabricated statements posted online in their name. Paid search results on Google and sponsored posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have also been used to hurl false accusations at political figures.
Kenya’s election shows that fake news is a global phenomenon and a full-blown international security threat. Since the U.S. election many new cases have cropped up, including in France, Germany, the Philippines, and Myanmar. And the list will keep growing.
The legacy of the Russian interference in the 2016 US election is that the playbook for disinformation has now been “open-sourced.” A common set of tactics has emerged: low-cost digital espionage campaigns that are scaled up based on performance, armies of paid users and bots to distribute messages, selective disclosure of information in order to maximize reputational damage, and the use of forged documents to complicate decision making. All this is done with the end goal of eroding public confidence in the underlying system of government.
While rumors, deception, and outright lies are nothing new in politics, fake news is unlike the propaganda of the past. It’s hyper-personalized and built for virality. In a fast-moving situation, that can be a dangerous combination.
That was the case in May, when hackers from the United Arab Emirates allegedly manipulated Qatari government websites and social media accounts to post fabricated quotes in praise of Iran attributed to Qatar’s ruling emir. This caused an uproar in the region. What followed was a social media campaign targeting users around the world accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism. The effect of this was to send an already tense situation spiraling out of control, resulting in a crippling blockade that persists today.
Social media is ubiquitous, which means that technology companies will need to create solutions that work across cultures, languages, and geographies. Any attempt to do so at an international scale would require setting criteria for determining what’s credible, teaching users to be smarter consumers of information, and fixing systemic issues that give rise to these problems.
In many of the countries where they operate, large American technology companies have little understanding of the nuances of local politics and tensions that exist below the surface. The best path forward is to work with local partners who can help navigate cultural realities and context. Facebook and Google both took this approach with the UK and French elections. However, that won’t be enough going forward. They should also enlist the help of users, who can be active participants in solving these problems. The most effective remedy for fake news is a skeptical audience. There needs to be two-way communication around how news is distributed.
The technology industry also needs to take a hard look at the misaligned incentives, malicious actors, and negative externalities that they have ignored on their platforms for so long. There is an entire global economy that sustains fake news, from which they have profited. On Facebook, fake stories got more engagement than real ones in the three months leading up to the 2016 US election. During that same period, CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that “more than 99% of what people see is authentic.” Assuming that this is true, that means that a small group of malevolent users could have an outsized impact that corrupts the ecosystem. Promising efforts are underway to improve technologies for identifying bots, suspicious behaviors, and questionable patterns in the spread of information - but more still needs to be done.
Above all, the objective of fake news is not to support any particular agenda but to sow chaos, which is why there’s such an urgent need for solutions. If its harmful influence cannot be contained, fake news will become an escalating threat to global stability. Nothing less than truth itself is at stake.