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Sex, lies and social networks: in Africa, women politicians face misinformation

Sex, lies and social networks: in Africa, women politicians face misinformation
Kenyan politician and Member of Parliament (MP), Millie Odhiambo, speaks   -  
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A few weeks after her appointment to the Kwale County Assembly in southeastern Kenya, Judy Kengo found herself in the eye of the storm: a retouched photo purporting to show her kissing another woman emerged on social networks.

"See, there's your leader. What kind of role model is she for our daughters?" commented one Internet user.

For Judy Kengo, the intention behind the dissemination of this manipulated photo was clear: to force her to resign from her position in this region, which is among the most conservative in the country.

Such attacks are not uncommon in Africa, experts told AFP: many women wishing to enter politics face online disinformation campaigns aimed at dissuading them from running or discrediting them in the eyes of voters.

To resist, you need "thick leather", says Judy Kengo.

Refusing to be intimidated, the 35-year-old elected representative has formed a team to respond to smear campaigns on social networks.

"Politics has always been a male-dominated field, and to get into it, you have to be very aggressive," she explains.

For a woman, the exercise proves tricky. "If you're aggressive in the way you approach issues, people will say you're too aggressive or you're a loudmouth," she points out. "It's not the same for our male counterparts."

- "Fear" -

More intense during election season, "the sexualized attacks are very crude and clearly aimed at undermining the idea that they are qualified" for a position, explains Kristina Wilfore, co-founder of the NGO #ShePersisted ("She Persisted"), which fights sexist misinformation and abuse online.

A study in which the organization participated showed that during the 2022 Kenyan general elections, social networks enabled "hateful rhetoric against women to flourish", Kristina Wilfore points out.

The damage is real. Even when false information is verified and corrected, "it still leaves the feeling that women have no place in certain public spaces", she laments.

On the African continent, women hold just 24% of the 12,100 parliamentary posts, according to a 2021 study by the pan-African "Women in Political Participation" project.

In Kenya, where the constitution requires at least one-third of seats in the National Assembly to be held by women, this quota has never been reached.

"Many women are afraid to enter the public space, especially the political space, because of (these) problems," Kenyan MP Millie Odhiambo tells AFP.

"Women avoid (political careers, ed. note) altogether, or else they avoid leaving a digital footprint, having any activity on the internet," confirms Kenyan political analyst Nerima Wako-Ojiwa.

- Nudity and sex tape -

In Rwanda, entrepreneur and opponent Diane Rwigara saw photos of herself purporting to show her naked circulated on the internet just days after announcing her candidacy for the 2017 presidential elections.

She later told CNN that the images had been retouched and were part of a smear campaign to prevent her from running against President Paul Kagame, the country's strongman, in power since 2000.

Her candidacy was subsequently rejected due to alleged forgeries in her application. A court acquitted her of these "unfounded" charges in 2018.

Last April, former Kenyan senator Millicent Omanga faced a wave of calls to resign as deputy minister after two videos of an alleged sex tape appeared on social networks.

AFP traced one of the videos, which came from the account of a non-professional adult film actress. Ms. Omanga never made any public comment on the subject and did not respond to AFP's requests.

Artificial intelligence

Many experts warn: these false accusations, generally with sexual connotations, risk becoming more and more frequent with the rise of artificial intelligence.

In 2019, the app DeepNude, which virtually undresses women, was scuttled after an outcry over the possibilities for abuse it offered. But similar processes subsequently remained available, notably via encrypted messaging.

“Social networks have the primary responsibility to ensure that online spaces are not used (...) with the aim of causing harm,” says Leah Kimathi of the NGO Kenyan Council for Responsible Social Networks.

However, the African continent remains largely exposed to the excesses of social networks. “Their business models, with algorithms, amplify disinformation online, making it viral to make profits,” she underlines. And "the platforms invest far less in security and safety in Africa compared to the rest of the world."

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