Innovator Insights – Kenya Election Special
Fathm’s Innovator Insights series explores the bold steps taken by individuals and organisations seeking to increase value and improve quality in journalism, communications, and information sharing and identifies what we can learn from them.
This edition focuses on the recent elections in Kenya and explores two very different responses to the problem of mis, dis, and mal information. We spoke to Mark Kaigwa (KM), founder of Nendo, an award-winning research and marketing agency working across the African continent. Mark is also founder and team leader at StopReflectVerify.com a misinformation and false news quiz, podcast, and platform. We also spoke to John-Allan Namu (J-AN), co-founder of Africa Uncensored, an independent media house set up by investigative journalists in Kenya with a goal to investigate, expose and empower audiences.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and how your service differs from other forms of news and information?
MK: At StopReflectVerify.com we’ve worked on issues such as democracy, governance, health (we did health-related misinfo back in 2018 before COVID-19 and then did a dedicated COVID-19 quiz when the pandemic was at its peak). Media literacy and digital media literacy are areas I’d consider close to my heart. Overall, I’d say I’ve been fascinated by the behaviour of the continent’s ‘connected class’ of Africans with phones and internet access. My team and I work to solve challenges that come from this.
J-AN: Africa Uncensored’s core focus is in three areas: Investigative reporting, in-depth and explainer journalism and fact-checking. We don’t focus on the day-to-day; rather, we try and address ourselves to larger systemic public interest issues in our society. Having worked in investigative journalism for years, we broke off to follow the stories that matter to the country and the people. Our goal is to show Africa as it really is.
Why did you feel there needed to be changes to the way audiences received and engaged with information about the elections in Kenya?
MK: My team and I continue to build on a library of misinformation examples, case studies, and situations going back to the 2017 general election. It was a priority for us to create an intervention that assists social media citizens and, to the extent we can target voters specifically, we wanted them to be better equipped for mis, dis, and malinformation this general election.
The stakes had been rising and the fever pitch of misinformation kept growing. As part of our preparation, we’d look at and evaluate data from fact-checking partners, too, and examine hundreds of fact checks and their impact.
StopReflectVerify.com solves for the gap between the misinformation that travels algorithmically and the fact-checks that come later and don’t reach the same audiences who shared or consumed the misinfo.
That’s been a challenge in the electoral cycle; filling in the gaps when it comes to misinformation.
J-AN: We noticed the dearth in civic education about our electoral processes. This shouldn’t be work that journalists dedicate themselves to per se, but there was such a yawning gap between what people think their representatives are supposed to do and what they actually are mandated to do, that we felt it important to begin telling stories about the same. Secondly, the misinformation environment around our politics has been so robust that it has had very severe real-world consequences. Cambridge Analytica is infamous for what it did in America, but it was in Kenya beforehand. That model of mis and disinformation has since been franchised and Kenyan politicos are using it to devastating effect. Given how sensitive our elections are, we felt it was important to focus quite a bit on debunking fake news and being a “true-north” for the public.
Who is your target audience and why?
MK: We’re looking at digital citizens. While we have seen the StopReflectVerify.com quiz used offline in-person in various counties across the country, it is voters and the general public with a smartphone or internet access who we focus on.
The media help us to amplify the quiz as well, with a lot of press coming our way thanks to partnerships and collaborations with them. This helps reinforce what we’re doing.
J-AN: We target young, urban Africans between the ages of 18 and 35, and try to tell stories that are relevant to this age group. We do this because our median age in Kenya is 19; as is the median age in many sub-saharan countries. The continent is urbanising very quickly, meaning that experiences of young people are becoming more and more relatable no matter where you are. We want to tell stories to, for and about this demographic because they are also at the coal-face of many of the issues that the continent is facing; from unemployment to healthcare challenges.
What were the biggest challenges in developing your service and how did you overcome them?
MK: We’ve found that the challenges include figuring out how to reach people who were exposed to misinformation but not the fact-checks. My team and I also encountered people who preferred to stay inside social networks rather than leave them to come take the StopReflectVerify.com quiz. So for them, at one point, we experimented with a Facebook Messenger chatbot (that mirrored the quiz). Ultimately the biggest challenge is going to be mobile data to participate and engage with our digital challenge. If there were a way we could zero rate our website (and find someone to pay for the data of watching and consuming our content and material) we’d do it!
J-AN: Honestly there were no major challenges. Our partners, Open Cities Lab (based in South Africa), had already developed the site for use during the South African election, so there was a working model to build on. The challenge actually was in getting candidate data from our electoral body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. The IEBC gazetted these names very late into the electoral cycle; limiting the chances that the candidate site [was] being useful to as many of the over 10 million people in the country connected to the internet as possible. Cleaning the data and aligning polling areas to Google data was a challenge, but a surmountable one.
How do you measure the impact of what you are doing? What have you found out so far?
MK:Since Nendo (the backbone of the StopReflectVerify.com project) has a marketing background, we learnt to ensure we built in the distribution of the project. On our own without this we would not have reached over one million social media users with the quiz. While not all have taken it, we’ve exposed them to ways to reframe their thinking and how they participate across the web.
We monitor people who take the quiz, consume our content, watch and interact with our podcast, and are reached by our social media campaign. Metrics matter and we’re glad to have some great takeaways from the Kenyan general election.
J-AN: We were able to reach over 2 million people, and the tool was useful shortly before and after the election, as people sought to know who was running in their area. Specifically for the sub-national races, some seats had over 40 contestants, so it was a fair bit more difficult in these areas to make choices based on a candidates agenda. We think that the My Candidate app helped alleviate some of that pressure and prepared voters better for the ballot.
What have you learned so far and how will you use that learning?
MK: While moderation plays a role, there’s more work to be done instituting algorithmic accountability and transparency. This helps factor in local nuances. Platforms can’t claim ignorance and need to play an active role in mitigating potential harms that would be spread through their algorithms.
For StopReflectVerify.com we’re aiming to take our approach towards future African elections and areas where misinformation and media literacy gaps exist across the continent and are open to partnerships that get us there.
J-AN: Sometimes it is the simple solutions to a problem that are most necessary.
We tend to overthink our responses as journalists to what’s happening, and only tend to think in terms of story. The collaboration between Open Cities Lab, Odipodev and ourselves has helped us think of our usefulness beyond pure journalism.
Can you share 3 top tips to help others considering undertaking similar projects?
- Stay in observation mode, studying what’s happening.
- Explore social listening – finding social media conversations and sentiments can help one discover the thoughts and points of view.
- Stop, reflect, and verify before you share.
- Find great partners
- Think of the problem you want to solve
- Build and adjust publicly – Let the public give you feedback through the use of your service, and act quickly to improve it.
If you’ve enjoyed this edition of Innovator Insights, why not check out previous interviews with other innovators in news and journalism.