On June 24, 2021 around 6 a.m., an insidious hashtag, #KatibaMbichi, appeared on the Kenyan Twitter timeline. Her trending appeared to be driven by a number of faceless bots and retweeted by a series of catfish which propelled her to number one on Kenyan Twitter trends.
Our investigations have revealed how these malicious, coordinated and inauthentic attacks that seek to silence members of civil society, cloud their reputation and stifle the reach of their messages, are a growing problem in Kenya. Twitter, in particular, has been at the heart of these operations because of the influence it has on the country’s news cycle.
The proliferation of digital media platforms in Kenya holds the promise of a renewed definition of freedom of expression. Additionally, Twitter has been a vital tool of expression for many Kenyan citizens, many of whom use it to hold their leaders to account and denounce their failures. But members of civil society and journalists are increasingly under attack thanks to disinformation campaigns in the country.
Through a series of interviews with anonymous influencers involved in these campaigns, we accessed their inner workings and obtained crucial information about their organization.
A campaign review provided our team with a window into the murky world of Twitter influencers for political hire in Kenya. Many of the accounts and individuals involved promote brands, causes, and political ideologies without disclosing that they are part of paid campaigns.
Twitter features such as the trending algorithm are leveraged to achieve the goals of these campaigns by amplifying them. Some verified accounts on the platform are complicit in carrying out these attacks. The purpose of these campaigns is to exhaust critical thinking and poison the informational environment by blurring the truth.
Our surveys looked at data from two months between May 1, 2021 and June 30, 2021, with a particular focus on the Constitutional Amendment Bill – known as the Building Bridges Initiative – which was being promoted in Kenya at the ‘era.
With the help of Twint, Sprinklr and Trendinalia, we tracked the attacks by mapping and analyzing the specific hashtags influencers were using on Twitter. This involved mapping some accounts that were posting malicious content targeting Kenyan activists and bailiffs. Reported hashtags often showed synced post timestamps in the metadata, with a lack of content most days, followed by a very heavy burst of activity, and then exhaustion.
In total, using Sprinklr, which has access to Twitter’s full historical archive, we reported 23,606 tweets and retweets posted by 3,742 accounts under the 11 hashtags. We also obtained 15,350 of these tweets using the Twint package on Github to perform further content analysis.
How Misinformation Spreads
The Twitter campaigns we reviewed were those that were pro-BBI and directly attacked prominent citizens and civil society activists who strongly opposed the proposed reforms, and also sought to discredit civil society organizations and activists. portraying them as funded villains. by the Vice President of Kenya, William Ruto, who opposes the BBI process.
The well-coordinated attacks are launched through WhatsApp groups to avoid detection. WhatsApp group admins give instructions on what to post, which hashtags to use, which tweets to engage with and who to target. They also sync the post to allow tweets to trend on Twitter.
There is money to be made by attacking civil society. Our sources have confirmed that they are paid between $10 and $15 to participate in three campaigns per day. Those higher in the ranks receive a monthly retainer of up to US$500. Those under mandate oversee hashtags and ensure they evolve on the days they are posted.
Who is targeted by misinformation
According to our analysis, the top three most frequent victims were known Kenyan journalists, judges and activists. Prominent anti-BBI activists under the Linda Katiba movement that took the BBI to court have been the target of some of the most vicious attacks.
The attacks peaked in early May with the specific aim of trying to discredit the anti-BBI campaign. Jerotich Seii, a key member of the Linda Katiba campaign that was targeted, said in an interview that she had to spend a lot of time trying to prove her activism efforts were genuine and not a front for someone else. “The disinformation attacks against me were aimed at portraying me as someone with ulterior motives who is not interested in the welfare of Kenyans. I had to spend a lot of my time defending my position as someone who is actually a patriot who does what he does out of love for his country,” Seii said.
According to our analysis, the top three most frequent victims were known Kenyan journalists, judges and activists.
All of this leads to self-censorship by some of the platform’s activists as they feel it is pointless to use a platform that cannot offer any meaningful engagement. One activist we spoke to said she had reduced her Twitter activity significantly due to all the trolling she had experienced.
The Kenyan High Court struck down the BBI on May 14 on the grounds that the initiative was unconstitutional and the Court of Appeal followed suit on August 20. The decision not only strained the already poor relationship between the judiciary and the executive in Kenya, but also led to successive waves of disinformation attacks aimed at questioning the judicial independence of judges and the accuracy of their decision.
A notable change in these attacks has been the evolution of the visual aesthetics of campaign content; newspaper editorial cartoon-style caricatures and memes were used, a likely indication of a change in leadership or strategy at the top that sought to make content more palatable and shareable.
What is the impact of slander?
Data we collected from Trendinalia (which collects Twitter trending data in Kenya) shows that sufficient amplification was achieved for 8 of the 11 hashtags we identified that became trending topics. This amplification was achieved in part through the use of verified accounts. An anonymous influencer we spoke to said owners of some verified accounts involved in these campaigns often praise them to improve the campaign’s chances of trending. “The account owner usually gets a share of the campaign loot from the person who rented it out once it’s over,” the influencer said.
The demand for this service by the political class in Kenya is clearly strong. In the months of May and June alone, we counted at least 31 contrived political hashtags, including those related to the BBI process. This translates into at least one manipulated disinformation campaign that Kenyans have to deal with every other day.
Curiously, there is little evidence that these operations actually influence people’s opinions. However, they do have an effect on how Twitter users interact with their information environment. The purpose of such operations is to overwhelm, to create an environment where no one knows what is true or false anymore. The goal is to exhaust critical thinking and blur the truth.
In the months of May and June alone, we counted at least 31 contrived political hashtags, including those related to the BBI process.
Typically, a post written by one of the prominent activists or law officers is bombarded with so many attacks, insults and dismissive comments that space for a good conversation is lost. The goal is always to ensure that sober people are discouraged from amplifying the topic after encountering so much aggression in replies and quote tweets.
The role of Twitter Inc.
For many Kenyans, Twitter matters. The platform has become an avenue for highly critical expression, networking, posting announcements, and a way to get information. It is also an important avenue for active citizenship as #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) is one of the loudest and most lively internet communities in Africa.
On the darker side though, some of Twitter’s features are being exploited for nefarious purposes. The platform fails Kenyans and Africans in general. Political actors use it to try to control political narratives by poisoning the platform and harassing dissenting voices.
Specifically, Twitter’s trending algorithm, which selects and highlights content without examining its potential for harm, often serves as an on-ramp for users trying to find information on the platform. Our sources said that Twitter trends are the primary KPI by which most of their campaigns are judged. They admitted that without it, their jobs would not exist. “The main goal is to be trending on Twitter. I don’t know what our jobs would be like without that goal,” a source said.
Available evidence indicates that, for Twitter executives, this is not a new phenomenon. The trending algorithm in particular, which is a big part of how Twitter works, has been left open to misinformation campaigns and attacks.
Twitter’s moderation team should pay close attention, carefully monitor and regulate its trending section. Activists, such as Sleeping Giants, have repeatedly called on Twitter to “undo” itself. This can be done by removing the feature entirely or disabling it during critical times such as election times.
Available evidence indicates that, for Twitter executives, this is not a new phenomenon.
It can be said that Twitter has no incentive to solve this problem. It sells ads for “promoted trends” and “promoted tweets” in hashtag feeds from its trending topics section to business clients. This puts Twitter in the middle of the mess as it profits from this harmful activity.
Ad Dynamo, an agency that sells Twitter ads in Kenya, currently offers Promoted Trends for $3,500 per day in the country. The overall message this sends is that it’s okay to sow hate on the platform as long as Ad Dynamo owners can place ads next to trending content and profit from it.
As Kenya heads towards elections in 2022, the demand for these services will increase and many political parties will seek malicious coordinated trend patterns and create the risk of a repeat of the political violence of 2007.