Online propaganda in elections

The influence of online propaganda in elections is potent, as the publicised activities of the alleged Russian interference in the US elections or the data analysis firm, Cambridge Analytica, in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan presidential contests showed. 

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Digital war: Inside online propaganda machines

On the eve of Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party leader Raila Odinga’s December 9 “Azimio La Umoja” convention at the Kasarani stadium, a parody Twitter account of Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata urged Kenyans to boycott the much-hyped rally, where Mr Odinga was to declare his presidential candidacy.

Within six hours, the tweet had generated hundreds of comments, with supporters of Deputy President William Ruto, Mr Kang’ata’s political ally, clashing fiercely with Mr Odingas’ followers.

A few hours later, another account, Paul Saka (@paulton02723536), tweeted a photo from a concert held by Ghanaian dancehall artist, Stonebwoy, taken on June 9, 2019 at the Tomorrow Leaders’ Concert that showed thousands of fans assembled at an open field at night.

It was widely shared on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter to create an impression that Mr Odinga’s followers had filled up the stadium at night. The hashtags used for this campaign included #AzimiolaUmoja, #Babathe5th, #the5th, (alluding to Mr Odinga becoming the fifth President of Kenya).

Both tweets created an online stir and grossly misinformed Kenyans. The fierce battle to succeed President Kenyatta is fuelling a nasty cyber war between rival political factions, with the propaganda becoming ever more intense as the clock winds down to the August 9 General Election.

Research done by two Mozilla fellows, Mr Odanga Madung and Mr Brian Obilo dubbed “Inside the Shadowy World of Disinformation-for-hire in Kenya” shows that social media platforms are increasingly being used to maliciously target specific politicians.

The duo established that money, ranging from $10 to $15, is usually wired directly to social media influencers’ mobile money accounts for participating in up to three campaigns per day. With the social media accounts active on a daily basis, these influencers could be making up to $450 per month (about Sh50,000), or an estimated $5,400 (about Sh600,000) per year by simply posting and re-tweeting.

The influence of online propaganda in elections is potent, as the publicised activities of the alleged Russian interference in the US elections or the data analysis firm, Cambridge Analytica, in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan presidential contests showed.

Cambridge Analytica’s executives were taped discussing the firm’s role in Kenyan polls, including reportedly mining voters’ data to help President Kenyatta win the disputed elections.

Facebook also faced investigations into the spread of misinformation and conspiracies before and after the contested United States presidential vote in November 2020.

According to the annual digital report, Kenya had 21.75 million internet users as at January 2021. Out of this figure, 11 million were active social media users, a sharp increase from 8.8 million users in the previous year. The figure of active social media users was therefore equivalent to 20 percent of the country’s total population of 54.38 million.

Parody accounts, social media influencers with massive followings and bots are being used as purveyors of fake news and defamatory statements against rivals.

One of the country’s most influential Twitter users allied to the DP’s campaign, Dennis Itumbi, who has 1.4 million followers, released a “dossier” of how events would unfold during the Azimio rally at Kasarani.

Citing agents of the self-styled Hustler Nation Intelligence Bureau (HNIB), he named key leaders who would skip Mr Odinga’s rally. He added that the Nairobi Regional Commissioner had been instructed to ensure that most of the seats during the country’s Jamhuri Day celebrations on December 12, at Uhuru Gardens, be reserved for Mr Odinga’s supporters in order to cheer him and discredit the DP, who would also be in attendance.

Mr Itumbi claimed that he got all these details from “reliable” sources. This tweet attracted over 400 retweets, and got over 2,400 comments and likes in a few hours. Many Kenyans empathised with the DP and bashed the government for allowing such arrangements.

Two days later, a hashtag #HasiraNation, trended on Twitter. Loosely translated, it means “angry nation.”

It was created to spite the DP’s Hustler Nation campaign movement.

The first tweet was sent early in the morning, at 5:55AM, and was posted by Rono Cornelius (Kipchumba), a known influencer with over 76,000 followers. Ten minutes later, he sent another tweet with the same hashtag.

Between six and 7am, over 30 people had used the hashtag, with each user sharing a post portraying DP Ruto as a very angry politician over his perceived “dwindling” political influence. In under five hours, Cornelius tweeted more than eight times with the same hashtag.

Notably, other influential users, Kenya’s Finest@ Queen_Maureen1(44,200 followers), Stephen Ndung’u (2,540 followers), Kibet, @KenyanWalter (3,127 followers) and Rose, @Rose MumbuaD (12,600 followers) featured prominently in repeatedly using the same hashtag.

Throughout this onslaught of tweets, propagandist videos of all previous scandals linked to DP Ruto were posted.

In the course of the day, some Kenyans used the hashtag on their tweets to gain traction, especially those selling their items online.

Digital media strategist Pauline Njoroge, who has a State House commendation, was also accused by DP Ruto’s allies of being part of a team targeting the DP. On January 13, she indirectly referred to DP Ruto as “the guy who tried to grab sewage land in Ruai”. The post got almost 250 retweets.

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has raised a red flag on the impact of social media propaganda on elections.

Ms Amina Soud, IEBC’s acting director in charge of awareness and voter education, admits propaganda spread on social media was a challenge to peaceful elections.

“Propaganda is a real problem. Without a propaganda team, Kenyan politics is not for you. Propaganda is a demon and it is one of the key things killing the IEBC’s credibility,” she says.

Political analyst Mark Bichachi believes that the propaganda antics in social media will greatly influence the outcome of next year’s elections, “just as it proved troublesome during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.”