Doctored newspaper front pages spread disinformation as Kenya elections draw near

·6 min read

Cheating politicians’ wives, sex scandals, murder allegations – fake front pages of major Kenyan newspapers are proliferating on social media ahead of a high-stakes election set for August 2022. AFP Fact Check has rounded up doctored headlines designed to stir tensions among voters, as experts warn that disinformation in Kenya is growing more sophisticated.

As election fever ramps up in Kenya, platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have entered the fray of political campaigns, with candidates vying for the support of the East African nation’s 12 million social media users.

On August 9, voters will choose a successor to President Uhuru Kenyatta who must stand down after serving the maximum two five-year terms.

The contest is shaping up to be a two-horse race between the president's erstwhile ally and his deputy William Ruto and veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga, who has Kenyatta’s backing.

AFP Fact Check has already debunked several election-related claims, like the emergence of fake quotes attributed to politicians.

Another tactic involves creating made-up newspaper headlines about candidates. Those targeted in the disinformation campaign include the popular Kenyan weekly tabloid The Nairobian, which is published by the Standard Group.

Made-up cheating scandal

Several fake versions of its front pages have been circulating online in recent weeks. One example features a story about Ruto’s wife allegedly cheating on him with the owner of Kenyan football club Sofapaka.

The claim, first posted on Facebook on March 31, 2022, features a picture of Sofapaka chairman Elly Kalekwa alongside the headline “I slept with Rachel Ruto”.

The Facebook user who shared the claim expressed outrage at The Nairobian and its publisher Standard Group for running the purported article.

 

Screenshot showing the false post, taken on May 30, 2022


The post also appeared elsewhere on Facebook, including here.

But the image does not show an authentic front page of The Nairobian newspaper.

A search of the tabloid’s website for the Friday, March 25, 2022 issue revealed that the top news story that day was about a former sex worker campaigning to become a member of parliament (or “bunge” in Swahili).

Instead of Kalekwa, the main photograph shows the woman interviewed for the article. Meanwhile, the rest of the front page is exactly the same as the doctored one.

Screenshot showing the authentic front page of the Nairobian newspaper issue for March 25, 2022

The Standard Group issued a statement rejecting the front page circulating online.

“FAKE NEWS ALERT: This is NOT a genuine cover of the Nairobian weekly newspaper. It is a manipulated front page. Be cautious NOT to fall for political propaganda and deep fakes during this electioneering,” it said on its official Facebook account on March 30, 2022.

Fake love triangle

Another doctored front page attributed to The Nairobian surfaced on Facebook on April 7, 2022, this time with the claim that Ruto and his son were involved with the same woman. A closer inspection of the post shows that the story was supposedly published on April 8, 2022 a day after the claim emerged.

Screenshot showing the post with the doctored newspaper front page, taken on May 30, 2022

AFP Fact Check found that the original edition published on that date did not match the one in the doctored image.

Screenshot showing the genuine Nairobian newspaper April 8, 2022, issue

A reverse image search confirmed that the altered front page had been lifted from The Nairobian’s January 1, 2021, edition, which has no story about Ruto and his son.

The Standard Group and The Nairobian newspaper once again issued a statement condemning the post as fake.

Other English-language outlets which have seen their front pages misused for disinformation purposes include dailies The Standard (also part of the Standard Group) and The Star.

A Twitter post published on April 14, 2022, featured a doctored front page of The Standard with a headline claiming that the primaries of the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) had neither been free nor fair.

Screenshot showing the false post, taken on May 30, 2022

Political parties, including the UDA led by Ruto, held primaries in mid-April to nominate candidates for a range of positions including county governors and members of parliament.

Although the event was marred by allegations of vote-rigging, The Standard newspaper's April 14 front page did not feature the headline “Not free, Not fair”.

AFP Fact Check found that authentic version on the paper’s website reads: “Brace for fuel price shocker”.

The Standard denounced the screenshot circulating online as “fake”.

Separately, a May edition of the Star was manipulated to include a false story about Ruto’s running mate Rigathi Gachagua murdering politician Wahome Gakuru who died in a car crash in 2017.

Screenshot showing the doctored front page, taken on May 31, 2022

A reverse image search found the real cover page on mgazeti.com, an online archive for Kenyan newspapers and magazines. The Star newspaper also shared the front page on its SoundCloud page.

“Karua pick lifts Raila past Ruto in top job race,” reads the actual headline for the May 19 edition.

Swahili media have not been exempt from being targeted by hoaxers. A doctored front page of the Taifa Leo newspaper circulated on Facebook in March, with a headline accusing the Jubilee party of drawing only ageing politicians.

Screenshot showing the doctored front page, taken on May 31, 2022

In reality, the front page for March 26, 2022, ran a story entitled “Jubilee yavuna kuvuna”, which translates to “Jubilee party wins big”.

A reverse image search found that the main headline and some pictures appearing on the page had been digitally manipulated.

Disinformation ‘reaching millions’

Experts warn that false or misleading content across all social media platforms is on the rise in Kenya ahead of the much-anticipated summer election.

“Kenya has practically been in campaign mode and a politically heightened mood since 2021 and that has correspondingly meant that disinformation on social media hasn’t been far behind,” said Odanga Madung of the Mozilla Foundation.

He added that disinformation was growing more sophisticated, both in its substance and distribution channels.

A recent investigation by AFP Fact Check revealed that politicians in Kenya hire young people with huge online followings to help them manipulate social media platforms’ algorithms so as to sway public opinion.

The contracted influencers spread politically-related propaganda and disinformation.

Madung said similar disinformation campaigns had also been run during Kenya’s last election in 2017. Poll-related violence left dozens dead at the time.

“The 2017 election, in particular, was rife with it evidence shows that foreign outfits like Cambridge Analytica and Harris Media LLC spread carefully-crafted disinformation on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. From the research we’ve carried out, this year will be no different,” he told AFP Fact Check.

Madung said it was not easy to measure the impact of the current wave of election-related disinformation because it is “hard to draw a line between disinformation and how Kenyans will vote offline”.

But "false and sometimes hateful content often goes viral reaching millions of Kenyans so it’s safe to say it is influencing how people think and feel about the August elections," he added.

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