The most sensational failures of the primaries are well known. According to this Capital FM article, Ruth Odinga was falsely declared the ODM nominee for the Kisumu governorship by someone who was not authorized to make that announcement. Meanwhile, TNA initially awarded the nomination race for the Othaya constituency to Gichuki Mugambi and then reversed its position and awarded it to Mary Wambui after she and her supporters protested alleged efforts by Gichuki’s camp to rig the outcome.
And there are other cases. A total of 19 petitions were filed at the tribunal of Kenya’s Independent Boundaries and Electoral Commission (IEBC) by primary candidates who claim to have been cheated out of their nominations. In light of such obvious failures by the parties to hold a free and transparent nomination vote, Charles Onyango-Obbo has praised the stone-throwing protesters for their efforts in defense of democracy.
But it is fair to say that some of the anger and frustration was misspent – that it was simply the product of rumor and misinformation (deliberate or not) that bloggers and journalists could have more effectively eliminated.
The bloggers Daudi Were, Tom Mboya and Kennedy Kachwanya discussed this topic with the journalists of the Networked News Lab this week, and came up with a few lessons and recommendations that would be useful to consider for the March elections.
1) Citizens were poorly informed about what to expect from the process. When should polls open and close? Who should be present at the stations? Who will transport ballot boxes? Who will count? Who will tally? How many candidates and how many ballots? In the absence of this basic information, it is difficult for citizens to make responsible evaluations, and easy for rumor and misinformation to spread.
2) A vacuum of information will be filled with rumor and misinformation. Though some of the parties began to learn this lesson during the process, the realization came late. Informing supporters that there is no decision is better than no information at all.
3) Mass media and new media are out of sync. It is not only that mainstream journalists are saying one thing, whilst bloggers say another. Journalists may be saying one thing on television (sorry folks, no information on that contest), whilst another on social media (re-tweeting a statement by a candidate or party). At a minimum, journalists need to speak with one voice across platforms. But furthermore, for social media and mainstream media to work with each other (rather than against each other), it is important to gain some clarity on how each will do its respective jobs. A blogger, for example, might prefer to tweet an allegation and ask his or her followers to verify or debunk. A journalist might work the phones to confirm or deny the same allegation. Both are fine strategies so long as everyone is transparent about their procedures and intentions. Nowadays, silence from a key journalist for thirty minutes can be damaging unless the journalist declares: “Folks, that rumor is unconfirmed, I’m working the phones now to try to verify,” or “Folks, that rumor is being disputed by an interested party. I’m still trying to figure out what has happened.”
So the Networked News Lab is now partnering to carry out three small but significant tasks.
1) Networked News Lab reporters are going to pool reporting resources on the process and procedures to be expected in the March elections, so that everyone can produce their own stories and materials from a comprehensive and accurate set of facts. And so that any remaining uncertainties can be clarified in time by officials.
2) Journalists and bloggers are going to draw up a draft of the procedures each will take in covering the unfolding events of the election. It’s recommended that bloggers and journalists communicate these to their followers. This isn’t like a code of conduct, or anything prescriptive. Each blogger and journalist can follow their own guidelines, but to be clear on what they are and to communicate them is a useful first step. And if the journalists and bloggers associated with this project can draw up some thoughtful guidelines for themselves, we hope that might be useful for others.
3) Shed some journalistic light on how political parties are using social media.
Please share opinions and ideas. And if you have any particular interest in these actions, get in touch with me on Twitter at @benequista or by email at n.p.benequista at lse.ac.uk.