‘Fake news’ in Kenya’s 2022 elections: What has gender got to do with it?
Political propaganda against vocal women is often personal, sexualised, and tries to silence or intimidate them out of the race. Such gendered information operations are not new, but in Kenya’s polarised digital world, the draining and disturbing falsehoods find women in their most-guarded private space–in their smartphone inside their home. It gnaws at their peace of mind, chips away at their self-esteem. Is this all about the unwritten rules of the ‘dirty game’ of politics, or do women suffer disproportionately?
Africa Check’s Alphonce Shiundu and Makinia Juma explore what the information pollution against politically active women means to Kenya’s democracy, and how some women have fought back, with love, silence, and at other times, with stinging words.
A fabricated frontpage claimed a top politician in Kenya had impregnated a sitting female senator vying for a gubernatorial seat. Another fake frontpage claimed a foreign businessman slept with the wife of a top politician.
Shortly after the Nairobi gubernatorial debate, a tough married female journalist was labelled a “concubine of a foreign president” because a troll did not like the questions she asked when moderating the debate.
These below-the-belt falsehoods are examples of political disinformation put out to intimidate and silence women in politics as the country heads towards the 2022 general election.
“This is not new,” said Njeri Rugene, a journalist, editor and gender columnist with the Daily Nation, one of Kenya’s highest-selling newspapers. She has been reporting politics for nearly thirty years, and has seen the evolution of localised sexualised attacks against women with the proliferation of social media in the country.
Previously, the attacks were made in local rallies in the villages. The mainstream media would never carry the attacks. These circulated in the village grapevine, never documented. But in an era of smartphones, a video of a village rally with all the slurs makes it to every corner of the country in seconds.
“Social media has made it easier for these attacks to go viral, to get to a wider audience, and to torment these women directly,” said Rugene, the founder of Woman’s Newsroom Foundation, a non-profit seeking to correct the underreporting of women in Kenyan media.
Listening to Rugene list “patriarchy, gender stereotypes, and inequality” as the root causes of the sexualised and personal political smearing, has a familiar ring to it. A reminder that women in politics in Kenya have to choose between vying for political office, or having their names, honour, family, private life dragged in the mud as they battle for political office.
“These are things that are done to intimidate women off the campaign,” she added.
But it is the heartbreaking story that Judie Kaberia tells that brings home the trouble of women in politics. Kaberia is the Executive Director of the Association of Media Women in Kenya and has been going round the country training journalists on election coverage.
Kaberia recalled the story of a woman in Meru who had put out word that she wanted to be a Member of the County Assembly (MCA). She was gaining ground on the incumbent. One evening, she found an audio slideshow with her pictures, some manipulated, sent to her via WhatsApp. The audio had unmentionable rumours about her private life, embarrassing lies about her sexual liasons.
“She was also shocked about the things they were saying about her,” Kaberia recalled. “She didn’t even know”.
The aspiring woman politician buckled. A political seat was not worth the mental anguish that she was going through as a result of the political disinformation and digital harassment.
Writing about gendered misinformation and disinformation inevitably ends up being a conversation about cyber-bullying and harassment of women online–because that’s the political playground for the faceless trolls using pseudo-accounts to attack their targets.
“They threaten these women. They make up lies. They have no limits,” Kaberia said. “And it has an effect on the mental health of these women, their self-esteem. Some just drop out of the race.”
With men, Kaberia said, the attacks are mainly on the agenda, the issue at hand. With women, their gender obscures any debate about the agenda.
“With a man, you will hear questions about their integrity, leadership record and so forth. When it comes to women, it is about whether they are married or not, the shape and size of their bodies, their private life. The (peddlers of falsehoods) say demeaning things, and they repeat these to an extent that it has an effect on how people perceive you,” Kaberia said.
Even female journalists who try to hold politicians to account come under attack from the supporters of the politicians. Suddenly, you see tweets and posts online about who the journalist sleeps with and other body-shaming slurs. For a male journalist, it is the content that is attacked – a generic “githeri media” – for half-baked journalism, Kaberia added.
In an environment where honest public debate is impossible because some voices are stifled, and others shut down, it is easy to think that that is where it ends.
Women in politics
However, the patriarchal roots continue to fight to box women in a silo, so that they do not compete with men for elective seats.
The mirage of a two-thirds gender rule has been exploited to perpetuate the misleading narrative that women want “free seats”, according to Anne Ireri, the Executive Director of the Kenyan chapter of the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA).
By falsely reframing the debate of women inclusion with misleading summaries, it affects how women participate in politics, Ireri added.
However, in the 2022 elections, there is a sophistication to the influence operations geared towards puncturing women who appear to be soaring.
For instance, hours after being picked as the deputy presidential candidate in the 2022 general election in Kenya, Martha Karua told Citizen TV that she had “seen” a congratulatory tweet from Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan.
What she was referring to was a viral screenshot of a tweet attributed to President Suluhu. It was a fake tweet. Another screenshot claimed that Karua had responded to a congratulatory tweet from US Vice president Kamala Harris.
It was a nifty disinformation tactic geared toward attacking Karua’s nomination as presidential running mate. The idea was that when the fake screenshots were finally debunked, Karua would look desperate for international attention, hungry for global validation. Not that it was needed or even expected given the geopolitics of the Kenyan election. If either Kamala or Suluhu had publicly tweeted saying they had not endorsed her, it would look like they did not approve of her candidature. Luckily, the foreign leaders did not bite.
Karua, a lawyer and a former Justice minister, was one of the few women who fought it out for elective seats and won, multiple times. She vied for the presidency in 2013. Yet, even when she was named, it was her gender, her womanhood that was amplified.
Indeed it was a big thing for a major political party to pick a credentialed woman as a potential deputy president. Yet, President Uhuru Kenyatta recently revealed, he picked Karua because of her ethnicity. Therefore, in hindsight, it was clever optics for the political party to flash the gender card to woo the women voters, even as they downplayed her Kikuyu roots. With the layers of intrigue in Kenyan politics, and the charade of interviews for running mate positions, it becomes difficult to tell if Karua got the job because of merit, gender or ethnicity, or if all three boosted her chances. It is a complex story to unpack.
But she has also been a victim of some misleading information.
A Tiktok video that went viral on WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook truncated Karua’s messaging as just two words with a heavy mother-tongue interference. It sounded like meaningless, agendaless sloganeering. The rendering was funny.
She sought out the Tiktoker, and together they laughed about it, blunting its potency as a propaganda video.
That was the love approach.
However, treating trolls with gloves does not always work. .
For instance, Pauline Njoroge, a digital media strategist with a huge following online, posted “Unconfirmed Degrees Association (UDA)” as she referred to the degree debacle affecting some of the politicians associated with the United Democratic Alliance party.
Just four words.
“(You) are spreading rumours the way you spread legs,” read a response from a Facebook user to the post.
She absorbed the attack and unleashed a zinger to shut the troll up.
“That’s quite normal. Just like legs were spread for you to be born. Or how do you imagine your mother did it?” she wrote back.
Her response got over five times the reactions the troll had amassed. The response was screengrabbed and spread via social media. In digital currency, a huge engagement is gold.
‘You go low, I will go lower’
What Njoroge did is a maxim that Millie Mabona, a sitting parliamentarian has held for long.
“Men think that they have monopoly of abuse of a sexual nature against women,” she said in a previous interview.
“Nobody is going to push me into the mud and expect me to play by a higher standard. I am not Michelle Obama who says that when they go low we go higher. You go low, I will go lower,” Mabona added.
She has been in Parliament long enough to know that for some male politicians, shaming women with sexualised attacks is a tactic to intimidate them. And so, if the debate is below the belt, she will get even lower. If it is above the shoulders, she is also equipped to engage.
What can women do to fight false information online?
When it comes to fighting falsehoods, one of the best strategies is to shine a light on what the facts are, to correct the misconceptions with the accurate information.
FIDA, for example, has fought back against the misconception that women will get free seats after elections (as nominated MPs) by having “intentional advocacy that highlights the basis of equal gender representation in law and policy”, according to Anne Ireri, the Executive Director.
“We have also highlighted the impact of having women in leadership through showcasing the progessive work of elected women leaders in Kenya- laws and policies that have been enacted by women legislators,” she said.
According to Mary Kulundu, a fact-checker with AFP Factcheck, it is useful for women public figures to hire professionals to manage their social media profiles. Also, she said, the women online have to be familiar with the tools that can help them stay safe online.
“They can make use of the mute button, because some comments can be vulgar. They can also report the falsehoods (so that these are taken down),” Kulundu said.
For Doreen Wainainah, the managing editor of Pesacheck, a fact-checking organisation, it is useful not to “feed the trolls”. Like Kulundu she agrees that a professional to manage social media pages is a great solution to handling digital attacks.
“If you engage and escalate (the digital arguments), it gets worse,” said Wainainah.