Top politicians invest heavily in digital campaigns as they woo votes online

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and SnapChat are the main social media platforms politicians are using disseminate their messages.  

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Politicians at all levels have heavily invested in digital campaigns, shifting online the race to woo voters ahead of the August 9 elections.

Presidential candidates William Ruto (UDA), Raila Odinga (Azimio la Umoja One Kenya) and Prof George Wajackoyah (Roots Party) have been building digital war chests to shape opinions, interact with their supporters and market their manifestos and agenda.

The leaders have also assembled an army of bloggers, communication specialists, journalists, vloggers and digital experts to help them craft and curate messages.

Data from the Communication Authority of Kenya shows that there were 64.4 million active mobile phone subscriptions in Kenya in 2021 and about 46.7 million internet users.

The country also has about 12 million WhatsApp, 7.1 million Facebook, eight million YouTube, four million Instagram, one million LinkedIn, one million Twitter and 250,000 Snapchat users – signifying the growth and impact of social media.

Both Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga have also amassed huge followings on Facebook and Twitter, allowing them the flexibility and convenience to freely interact with their supporters. The two have a combined 12.2 million users on the two platforms.

While Prof Wajackoyah has not been an active user of social media, he has enjoyed increased mentions in the past couple of months, as did Mr Waihiga Mwaure of the Agano party.

To increase his visibility, interact with his supporters and push his agenda online, Dr Ruto has in his team digital strategist Dennis Itumbi, who leads a group of digital enthusiasts and bloggers whose job is to curate content that sells the agenda of the Kenya Kwanza Alliance.

Some of the notable members of this team are Emmanuel Talaam, who is in Dr Ruto’s communication team, UDA communications director Wanjohi Githae, Eric Ng’eno and Munyori Buku. The team also enjoys the support of leaders allied to the alliance who from time to time share content online.

Others in the team are Gerald Bitok, an online content creator, former journalist Atambo Ngoko, Alberto Nyakundi Amenya, Willy Omosa, Cherotich Carren Kiki and Evans Miloo Ruto.

The DP’s team operates mostly from his official residence in Karen, Nairobi, though some of its members also work remotely.

They also sometimes enlist the services of freelance bloggers, who are paid between Sh500 and Sh1,000 per day, depending on the type of work that needs to be done.

“Our investment has been in areas where the masses are. So far, our biggest platform with the greatest impact is Facebook, where a majority of Kenyans are, and where traffic is the highest,” Mr Itumbi told the Nation.

“But we are also on other platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and Snapchat.”

In Mr Odinga’s team are former journalist Dennis Onsarigo, Pauline Njoroge of Jubilee, ODM director of communication Phillip Etale, former journalists Mac Otani and Nyambega Gisesa, bloggers Robert Alai and Lord Abraham Mutai,  Dikembe Disembe, Adede Adede, Denis Nyambane and George Nyongesa.

The team also has names such as Thomas Sankara, Jane Kyalo, Anyamah wa Anyamah, Evans Olando, Eddy Illa, Kamisa Kinyua and John Kihara.

The Odinga team runs and coordinates most of its operations from his presidential secretariat in Lavington and a command centre in Karen.

“Social media is currently the greatest perceptions influencer, which is a key thing in politics. It’s on social media, where news is breaking before it is aired as breaking news in mainstream media,” Mr Onsarigo told the Nation.

In Prof Wajackoyah’s case, he has been relying on the support of Roots Party spokesperson Wilson Gathoni, popularly known as Jaymo Ule Msee, who enjoyed relative success as a digital content creator before joining the party. Mr Gathoni said the team has been relying on young talent that volunteers as content creators, vloggers and bloggers for the party.

“Platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Facebook have become some of our biggest successes in the past couple of months. Gone are the days when conveying messages was only confined to the traditional media channels of television, radio and print,” Mr Gathoni told the Nation.

“A lot of our content is generated and distributed by our team of young and dynamic creators who mostly use Instagram, TikTok and even Snapchat. If you look at the way our manifesto blew up, it was through social media.”

And to maximise impact, shape opinions, expand their reach and amass more supporters, the three camps have also employed various strategies to influence the agenda before the elections.

Mr Itumbi said that the Kenya Kwanza digital team has used four approaches.

“The first is candidate-specific, from the MCA level to that of the President, where each candidate runs their own platforms and communicates with the supporters. And then we have the institutional approach, which includes UDA, Hustler Nation, Hustler Mashinani and William Ruto fans,” he said.

“We also have the supporters’ category where Hustler Nation online, county Facebook, Twitter and other online pages in the 47 counties have been working with the national team to drive our agenda, as well as teams in all the 290 constituencies.

“The last one is the coordinated approach where the Hustler Nation spokesperson and the William Ruto campaign head all coordinate communication and interaction in various platforms.”

Mr Odinga, on the other hand, has been relying heavily on the support of a multi-layered team that include Ms Njoroge, who was a member of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s digital team in the 2013 and 2017 elections and enjoys the backing of the state through the Office of the President, Wahome Thuku, Angela Mbuthia and others.

At the county and regional levels, Mr Odinga’s digital team said it relies mostly on governors, senators and even MPs who coordinate the digital campaigns through their communication teams and volunteers.

To run a successful social media drive, the leaders are spending millions of shillings.

“A social media budget for a presidential campaign ranges from Sh25 million to Sh30 million. This is a budget that will run a good campaign for five to six months. You’ll need to run a well-targeted campaign,” said Mr Kipngeno Kirui of SavvyPol, a political consultancy and advocacy firm.

Prof Gitile Naituli of the Multimedia University said the downside of this is that the leeway offered by social media has led to increase in propagation of hate, propaganda and even fake news.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had indicated that Mr Dennis Onsarigo is the head of the digital team that is working under the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition party. We have since been established that Mr Onsarigo, the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition campaign press secretary, is not in charge of the Azimio digital team.