Revealed: How TikTok is fanning political tension in Kenya

The logo of the social media video sharing app Tik Tok.

Photo credit: File

TikTok videos with over 4 million digital reach have been found to be fanning political tension ahead of the August 9 polls.

According to new research conducted by Mozilla fellow Odanga Madung on ‘How Disinformation on TikTok Gaslights Political Tension in Kenya’, the Chinese-owned platform was found to be a breeding ground for political propaganda and hate speech in the run-up to Kenya’s elections.

The study conducted an in depth review of over 130 Tik tok videos from 33 accounts, which leveraged the application's For You page algorithm to launch a highly-sophisticated disinformation campaign that threatens various ethinc communities .

The flagged videos feature gory images from the 2007/2008 post election violence in order to evoke ghosts of a violent electoral past for political gain.

“Many of the videos we reviewed contained explicit threats of ethnic violence specifically targeting members of ethnic communities that are based within the Rift Valley region. Similar narratives stoked the post-election violence of 2007/2008, where over 1000 Kenyans died and thousands more were displaced,’’ part of the report reads.

Such gruesome content was targeted towards specific communities as a means to instill fear amongst Kenyans.The content was also found to garner between 500,000 and 1.2 million views on the platform.

Videos contained derogatory words that labelled some ethnic communities not affiliated with certain political players or ideologies  as “madoadoa’’ that loosely translates to “blemishes’’ .

This is despite the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) banning use of words such as “madoadoa’’ in April that may trigger violence during this political season.

Furthermore, fabricated content that is attributed to credible media houses was also used to misinform Tiktok users and erode trust in the truth.

This includes doctored front pages of leading Kenyan newspapers such Daily Nation,The Standard and The Star.The fake pages were used to allege scandals involving senior political and civil society players.

One such account is a fake Kenya Television Network (KTN) news bulletin page which was used to churn out fake opinion poll results of major presidential candidates.

In the dance-app’s policies ,incitement against communities  that promote hateful ideology is prohibited.Additionally, use of synthetic and manipulated content is also banned.

However, the inflammatory content has been allowed to thrive on TikTok despite violating its terms of service,community guidelines and policies meant to create a safe online community for its users.

Gadear Ayed, a former TikTok content moderator attributed the disconnect to a context bias whereby moderators  are in charge of unfamiliar regions and languages.

“For example I at one time had to moderate videos that were in Hebrew despite me not knowing the language or the context. All I could rely on was the visual image of what I could see but anything written I couldn’t moderate,” Ms Ayed  said in an interview with Mozilla.

The former moderator also added that the moderation process was very fast and TikTok didn’t want them spending too much time checking whether content was real or not.

The Chinese-owned application has quickly become a popular social media platform in Kenya and is even the fourth most downloaded application according to Appfigures.

Although largely considered as a lip-syncing and dancing app, TikTok has grown into a political thought-sharing platform with hashtags such as #siasa #siasazakenya averaging over 20 million views.

TikTok joins Twitter and Facebook as social media platforms implicated in tampering in African democratic processes.Previous research conducted by Mozilla in 2021 exposed how Twitter was weaponized by foreign actors to manipulate Kenya’s public discourses.

The disinformation campaigns run on Twitter are reminiscent of the 2017 Cambridge Analytica scandal whereby Harris Media LLC  was alleged to use social media to launch a smear campaign against presidential candidate Raila Odinga.

In an interview with the Nation, Legal Researcher and Consultant at Kofi Annan Foundation , Abdulmalik Sugow indicated that there is extensive legal framework including the National Cohesion and Integration Act that criminalises hate speech following the alleged use of media to incite violence in 2007 elections.

Nonetheless,Mr Sugow opines that regulating global social media platforms such as TikTok may still be cumbersome.

“Hateful rhetoric which may qualify as hate speech under the Kenyan Law could remain under the purview of social media platforms which have continued to regulate such content rather opaquely, and primarily based on standards implemented by foreign regulators in countries which these platforms are established. Leaving such a consequential task to private platforms raises several concerns and also calls into question the effectiveness of current law enforcement efforts,” Mr Sugow added.

After reviewing the report, TikTok took down several videos and accounts that were highlighted by the study.

However, Odanga Madung, Fellow at Mozilla Foundation and author of the report told the Nation that such studies allow stakeholders to understand what the evolution of political speech looks like in the Kenya.

“The report allows Kenyans to understand the critical role that global social media platforms such as TikTok play in the information environment of our political landscape ,’’ Mr Madung says