Never before has fact-checking been more popular on the African continent than now. In Kenya, numerous fact-checking reports were written as the 2022 election came and went. Now, as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Sudan and other countries go to the polls this year, the same will be true outside Kenya.
Every word uttered will be scrutinised, and if numbers are included, so much the better. Our election showed that teams of keyboard warriors were commissioned on social media to go ye forth and trend. Last year, we saw photos of Zimbabwean political rallies passed off as Kenyan ones, whole fake manifestos manufactured out of thin air, fabricated press statements from a British university, and the faces of Ugandan bankers used in a fake university council poster.
Interest in fact-checking reports was at its highest during the presidential debates, when success required journalists to work fast, but resist the urge to rush to publication. There’s nothing quite like an extra day of verification when everyone is clamouring to publish; you inevitably find a typing error, a sloppily written paragraph, a wrong source cited, an absolutely crucial expert opinion. Having to correct a fact-check really defeats the whole object.
After the election and its high-stakes buzz ends, you now have elected representatives and executive officials all over the country who have to be held accountable. Usually, they will want to spend the funds they’ve been elected to manage and the expenditure has to be justified. So you may see claims that refer to a dire situation that calls for a remedy, be it numbers of unemployed youth, food insecurity, crime, early pregnancy, exam failures or alcoholism.
You will be reminded that your country compares really poorly with its peers on the continent, an abominable situation that really must be fixed, based on some serious-sounding ranking. Of course, as the next election draws near, the opposite will be true; we will have made outstanding progress. Proceed to check accordingly.
Inevitably, you will be told, with emphasis, that “this is what they do in the US and it works just fine”. In this case you have two options: either accept that invoking the United States or the United Kingdom ends all arguments or pluck up some courage and write an email to an expert in a foreign country who could (and most certainly will) tell you what you need to know.
Where do you look for these claims? The press conference, a journalist’s bread and butter, is a good place to start. As the speaker makes a claim at the podium, you can follow up with questions and ask for evidence.
The fine people you have elected will appear on one of the many radio and television stations the Communications Authority of Kenya has duly licensed. When the debate gets heated, the smartest amongst them know there’s only one way to show mastery of the issues and put their fellow panellists to shame: unleash the statistics. You will, of course, be listening.
Then the national parliament will open, as will the county assemblies all over the country marking the onset of motions and debates. The Senate and the National Assembly will debate in front of Kenyans’ TVs but the debates in 47 county assemblies will not be so broadcast. So you will need a live stream, and failing that, you will need to rely on the Hansard in your county, if it is actually published. The President will give a State of the Nation Address, which will be religiously fact checked, but a similar speech from your county governor will likely go unchecked.
May this change in 2023.
With all the governors, senators and county representatives, keeping track of all of the claims will be a tall order. It will really fall upon journalists in each county to track them all, because your favourite fact-checking organisations may not find everything.
If all else fails, you can just ask Kenyans on Twitter to help. Someone will figure it out.
Away from politics, social media is a swamp of fake job ads and false cures. So beware of job posts that require a fee and optimistic ads that promise quick cures for all manner of diseases, if only you will drink hot lemon or quit sugar, or eat garlic. Beware of claims that pin every health scare on the Covid vaccine, when other causes could well exist.
It’s clear, even in early 2023,that there’ll be plenty to keep fact checkers busy for the next five years. Hopefully, when the next election rolls around, our country will be well marbled with fact-checking skills. Also, hopefully, public debate will be fact-based and accurate, and Kenyans will know what their leaders have been up to. We really have no option.