In Kenya influencers are hired to spread misinformation

May 18 this year, the insidious hashtag #AnarchistJudges appeared on Kenya’s Twitter timelines. Seemingly driven by a number of faceless bots and retweeted by a series of sock puppet accounts, the deluge of tweets cast suspicion on the competence and integrity of Kenya’s High Court judges who had just taken down the 2021 Constitutional Amendments Bill. Many have falsely claimed that judges are involved in drug trafficking, bribery and political supporters. It quickly became one of the hottest subjects in the country.

Such malicious and coordinated disinformation attacks are growing rapidly in Kenya, my Mozilla Foundation colleague Brian Obilo and I have discovered in a new investigation. Through a series of interviews with influencers involved in these campaigns, we examined the evidence for a dark and burgeoning industry of social media influencers for political hire in Kenya. Members of civil society and journalists are increasingly the subject of attacks of disinformation that seek to silence them, tarnish their reputations and stifle their reach.

Twitter, which heavily influences the country’s news cycle and has actionable features like its trending algorithm, has been at the heart of these operations. Many accounts and individuals involved promote political causes and ideologies without revealing that they are part of paid campaigns. Even some verified accounts are complicit.

With help from Twint, Sprinklr, and Trendinalia, we tracked two months of data (May 1 to June 30) of disinformation attacks by mapping and analyzing the specific hashtags the authors used on Twitter. In particular, we focused on Kenya’s constitutional amendment bill, known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), which was debated at the time. The criteria involved mapping certain accounts that published malicious content targeting Kenyan activists and judicial officers. The timestamps in the metadata of these tweets suggest strong synchronization: sharp spikes in activity over a very short period of time.

In total, we reported 23,606 tweets and retweets posted by 3,742 accounts under the 11 hashtags. The campaigns we were interested in directly attacked citizens and prominent civil society activists who strongly opposed them. They also sought to discredit civil society organizations and activists by portraying them as villains funded by Kenya’s Vice President William Ruto, who strongly opposed.

Well-coordinated attacks are directed through WhatsApp groups to avoid detection. In groups whose conversations were shared with us, admins provided instructions on what to post, which hashtags to use, which tweets to interact with, who to target, and how to sync posts to keep them trending. “The main goal is to be trending on Twitter,” said one influencer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. “I don’t know what our jobs would look like without this goal. “

There is money to be made. Our sources said they are paid between $ 10 and $ 15 to participate in three campaigns per day. Others are on a retainer that can go up to $ 250 per month. It is in a country where many citizens earn $ 1 per day.

The three pluses The frequent types of victims of these campaigns, according to our analysis, were Kenyan journalists, judges and activists. Many attacks on Jerotich Seii, a prominent anti-BBB campaign member Linda Katiba, for example, used her or her father’s image, masquerading as them and alleging that her efforts were funded by William Ruto. She told us that the attacks on her were so libelous and effective that she “must have spent a good deal of my time defending my position as someone who is actually a patriot who does what he does. out of love for his country “. Other activists have resorted to self-censorship.

In response to our investigation, Twitter deleted over 100 accounts in Kenya that had violated its platform manipulation and spam policies. In an emailed statement, a Twitter spokesperson wrote: “Some accounts have relied on inauthentic behavior in an attempt to gain followers or retweets (not just on political themes, we believe). observed); but many of the tweets associated with the hashtags cited in the report (eg #AnarchistJudges) were legitimate.

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