- False political content is reaching millions of Kenyans on TikTok, now the most downloaded app there.
- Videos of fake newspapers, TV bulletins and polls are being allowed to proliferate.
- Such content is “the tip of the iceberg” and “not being taken seriously,” a researcher said.
As a general election in Kenya nears, TikTok is becoming a go-to source of information on politics. New research shows that a lack of effective content moderation by the platform is allowing millions of users in the region to engage with videos that are intentionally misleading and some that even incite violence.
The popular social media app has been developing its audience in Africa since at least 2020, with a particular focus on Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya according to a Quartz report. Now, Odanga Madung, a fellow with non-profit Mozilla, has conducted new research into political disinformation in Kenya on TikTok, finding it is acting as “a forum for fast and far-spreading political disinformation.” TikTok is now the most downloaded app in the country, according to the report.
“It’s clear that TikTok is the new political avenue on the block and Kenyans are using it heavily to connect with politicians and consume political content,” Madung told Insider. The app’s growing popularity in the country is “fundamentally changing the media landscape,” he added.
Kenya’s recent political history is fraught and Madung noted politicians there are known “to use reckless, incendiary rhetoric amid escalating tribal tensions among Kenyan citizens.”
After the presidential election of 2017, the Human Rights Watch said “serious human rights violations” occurred as police beat and even killed citizens protesting the re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta. The reaction to the 2007 election in Kenya was even more violent, resulting in more than 1,300 people being killed, a majority by police. A revised form of government was put in place in response. Kenya’s current election cycle is being dubbed “hustlers versus dynasty” and tensions are swirling as issues of class and ethnicity become central to some campaigns and proposed legislation.
Using a sample of 130 TikTok videos from 33 accounts of political disinformation about the upcoming election, including manipulated content, hate speech and calls to violence, Madung found that such videos had been viewed 4 million times. He called it “the tip of the iceberg of what is on the platform.”
“A highly sophisticated disinformation campaign is underway on the platform, which includes slickly produced video content and attack ads spewing false claims about candidates, while also threatening various ethnic communities,” Madung said. “Many of the videos are getting outsized viewership in comparison to their followers. According to researchers, this suggests that the content may be gaining amplification from TikTok’s For You Page algorithm.”
While all of the videos and accounts Madung used remained on the platform when he completed his research, a TikTok spokesperson told Insider they have all since been removed.
“We’re committed to protecting the integrity of our platform and have a dedicated team working to safeguard TikTok during the Kenyan elections,” the spokesperson said. TikTok is also working with fact-checker Agence France-Presse in Kenya and intends to roll out new features there, like an election guide and content lables, to get users connected to “authoratative information.”
Still, to Madung, the prolonged existence and apparent popularity of the type of political content he found on TikTok, along with “little public commitment” from the company shows “this issue is plainly not being taken seriously.”
Madung’s research found that many of the videos made “explicit threats of violence” against some ethnic communities based in the Rift Valley Region, a focus of violence after the 2007 election. Formerly a large province, it was partitioned into separate counties in 2013.
A video showing William Ruto, a presidential candidate and current Deputy President of Kenya, captioned to say he “hates” the Kikuyu people based there and “wants to take revenge,” has almost 500,000 likes. Another video of a detergent commercial was altered to have the narrator negatively describe and talk about the “removal” of tribes like Kikuyus, Luhyas, Luos and Kambas. And “graphic” imagery from previous election violence is being posted to stoke political tensions.
In terms of “synthetic” or manipulated content, Madung’s research found videos like a mash up of the Netflix documentary “How to Become a Tyrant” cut with incendiary news clips and false narration. It also found fake news bulletins and polls designed to look like they came from the Kenya Television Network, a fake tweet from Joe Biden, and numerous fake newspaper front pages, each garnering tens of thousands of views on TikTok.
While political ads are banned on TikTok, political videos are posted using hashtags like #siasa and #siasazakenya. Videos with just those two hashtags, “saisa” meaning “politics,” have more than 20 million views and counting, Madung found.
“In contrast, the same hashtag on Instagram has fewer than 100 posts and the most popular videos were viewed only hundreds of times,” Madung said.
Part of the reason for the content being allowed to proliferate on TikTok, Madung found, is a weak content moderation practice focused on Kenya or Africa as a whole.
A former TikTok content moderator Gadear Ayed told Madung that moderators were often assigned work in languages and countries they did not understand, along with demands of speed due to the high volume of content to be checked, often at least 1,000 videos per day. She was once put on moderation of posts in Hebrew, despite not knowing the language. Watching videos at 3x speed was normal practice for moderators.
“We didn’t have any way to identify whether a video was real or fake,” Ayed said in the report. “The moderation process is very fast and TikTok didn’t want us spending too much time checking if the content is real or not.”
While platforms like Facebook and Twitter have also been used to stoke political tensions in Kenya, both platforms have worked to improve their content moderation. According to Madung, TikTok is choosing to ignore what work other platforms have done.
“TikTok is failing its first real test in Africa,” he said. “Rather than learn from the mistakes of more established platforms like Facebook and Twitter, TikTok is following in their footsteps, contributing to the pollution of an information environment ahead of a delicate African election.”