A booming shadow industry of Twitter influencers for hire funded by faceless agencies has been behind the highly co-ordinated harassment and disinformation campaigns aimed at changing the country’s political direction as we head to the 2022 polls.
Twitter has suspended 100 users from Kenya after an investigation showed that their accounts had violated the platforms manipulation and spam policy through tweeting pre-determined hashtags meant to misinform the public or attack certain personalities.
The decision by Twitter was taken after a three-month investigation by American internet provision company Mozilla. The probe showed that Kenyan influencers are being paid between Sh1,000 to Sh1,500 to participate in three campaigns per day on Twitter.
“After investigation, our teams took action on just over 100 Twitter accounts operating in Kenya which we found had engaged in violations of our Platform Manipulation and Spam Policy,” said Twitter in a statement after being presented with results of the investigation carried out by Mozilla between May and June.
“While we weren’t able to independently confirm the tweet-for-pay activity described in your report, we could confirm the presence of at least one network of coordinated accounts — which appeared to link back to an earlier set of enforcements against similar activity, carried out by our teams in 2020,” said he micro-blogging website.
Kenya has about 11 million social media users representing 20 per cent of the population. The use of social media to manipulate voters is not new. In 2018, British data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica confessed its involvement in Kenya’s elections in 2013 and 2017 through influencing voters emotions after gathering data using third party applications connected to Facebook.
Executives of the company were secretly taped by British television station Channel 4 saying that they ran “just about every element” of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaign in 2013 and 2017, including rebranding his party twice, and writing the campaign’s manifesto and speeches. The firm also said it did “two rounds of 50,000 surveys.”
Although the Jubilee party later denied hiring Cambridge Analytica to run negative social media campaigns against its key challenger Raila Odinga, the British company was forced to shut down after being exposed of influencing election outcomes in a number of countries including the United States.
A new investigation by Mozilla dubbed “Inside the shadowy world of disinformation for hire in Kenya” says that Kenyan political formations seem to have picked lessons from Cambridge Analytica and have adopted the company’s modus operandi for the 2022 elections.
According to Mozilla, faceless individuals are paying influencers to use tweets using pre-determined hashtags at the same time to ensure that their narratives trend on Twitter to gain significant visibility.
The highly organised harassment and disinformation campaigns are mostly targeting the top two presidential frontrunners, Raila Odinga and DP William Ruto, journalists, activists and the Judiciary. According to the investigation, Kenyans are being fed by one disinformation campaign on Twitter every two days.
“This is a lucrative, well-oiled machine with very clear targets and as a result it is chilling good faith activism. The goal of these campaigns is to exhaust critical thinking and poison the information environment by annihilating truth,” says the probe.
“Twitter’s features are being exploited to achieve the goals of these campaigns. Its trending algorithm is amplifying these campaigns and accounts verified by the platform are complicit in leading these attacks,” it says.
The goals of such campaigns, according to the investigation, is to sway public opinion during high pressure political instances such as elections, protests and major rulings by the Judiciary like it happened when the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) was in court.
In order to achieve this, a large number of influencers are mobilised into WhatsApp groups by organisers who are on monthly retainers of an upwards of Sh25,000. Their job is to make sure that campaigns are executed daily and with different hashtags.
It is in the WhatsApp groups which are run by organisers where influencers are instructed what to tweet, which phrases to use, when to do it, which hashtag to use and who to target. The idea for this mode of operation is that synchronisation of tweets is important as it enables them to achieve the goal of trending on Twitter and get unsuspecting Kenyans to join in.
And in order to make the messages more appealing, digital artists are employed to create caricatures which mimic the style of editorial cartoons and memes with repetition of particular templates. According to the influencers who spoke to Mozilla, “All this serves the aim of making the content more palatable and shareable.”
“We also really don’t know who specifically we’re working for sometimes. Nowadays, the organiser just sends us cash, content and the instructions individually and tells us to post,” said one disinformation influencer.
“Sometimes the money comes before the campaign and sometimes it comes after the campaign. They’re usually careful not to delay for fear of us exposing them on Twitter for lack of payment,” said another influencer. Among the sponsored hashtags witnessed on Twitter in the recent times include Hustler Bandia, Ruaraka, Sympathy Addict, Justice for Sale, Kigeugeu, Kenya under Raila, Katiba Mbichi, Raila Hates Mt Kenya, Muthoniwa, Mboga za Uhuru, Master Sugu and Ruto’s Washwash Cartel.
Out of the 11 sponsored hashtags that the investigation uncovered, Mozilla found out that they had been generated through 23,606 tweets and retweets done by 3,742 accounts. Some of the accounts used for these campaigns were from verified personalities to achieve authenticity and amplification.
“This type of inauthentic engagement borrows from an age-old strategy. It is the online equivalent of many Kenyan politicians’ longstanding tradition of paying crowds to show up at political rallies to create the appearance of popularity. Retweets, however, are much easier to obtain,” it says.
During the two-month investigation between May and June, at least 31 political hashtags including the ones involving BBI were noted. And although there is very little evidence to suggest that such kind of operations do sway people’s opinions, investigators noticed that they have an effect on how Twitter users interact with their information environment.
“The goal of such operations is to overwhelm. It is to create an environment where nobody knows what is true or false anymore,” says the investigation.
During the investigation period, those opposed to the BBI were found to have been heavily targeted including the Judiciary when the High Court struck the plebiscite down on May 14 on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional initiative.
“Since then, wave after wave of disinformation attacks were launched in a bid to discredit the independence of the Judiciary and question the accuracy of their decision. It is in these anti-judiciary campaigns where the aesthetic of the content within the campaigns began to shine through,” investigators found out.
As if that was not enough, the campaigns have also discredited civil society groups and activists opposed to the BBI by portraying them as villains who were being funded by DP Ruto. Jerotich Seii, one of the members of the Linda Katiba campaign, told investigators that she spent a significant time trying to prove that her activism was genuine and that she was not a front for someone else.
“I had to spend a good chunk of my time defending my position as someone who is actually a patriot who does what they do out of love for their country,” said Ms Seii.
“Politicians’ playbook in the next elections will be no different from what they’ve done in the past. They will seek to divide Kenyans along tribal lines. Demand for these services will therefore increase and many political parties will seek them out as part of their campaign strategies,” notes the investigation.
Among the Twitter handles discovered to have taken part predominantly in such predetermined campaigns are @queen_maureen, @maimuna225, @lulukendi, @kiplits_, @harunirungu3, @masterretweeter, @mreggaesmith, @kiprono_hon, @itsdavidmaina and @karembokanax.
Many of these accounts tweet off the same hashtags for days on end and will constantly retweet a specific set of accounts. Interestingly while such accounts appear to be authentic, they are fake and use “suggestive pictures of women on their profiles in order to bait men into following them, or at least pay attention.”