Social media: new warfront for politicians as elections approach

On Tuesday, the word “Arap Mashamba” was trending on microblogging site Twitter.

By midday, there were over 1,000 retweets and quote-tweets linking to the word, along with the front page of a local newspaper.

The nickname was recently used to refer to one of Kenya’s leading politicians.

On May 18, KTN News flagged a post as fake. He tried to imply that the news channel had quoted the former Chief Administrative Secretary for Transport, Wavinya Ndeti, commenting on the presidential candidacy of Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka.

On February 15, a fake video circulated online showing witness interference suspect lawyer Paul Gicheru allegedly pleading guilty before a panel of ICC judges, which he had in fact not done.

Fake front page headlines have become the order of the day.

The Internet is at the center of all these events. A 2021 Mozilla Foundation report called Kenya’s social media “a well-established disinformation industry”.

As Kenya heads to the polls on August 9, politicians are now employing all sorts of tricks to counter the inroads of their competitors.

The use of sponsored hashtags, manipulation of photos and videos, creation of fake posts, spreading fake news and other schemes were widely used to shape the agenda.

The use of hired social media influencers to spread fake news is on the rise in Kenya, according to multiple reports.

Political analyst Dismas Mokua says using propaganda as a tool to attack opponents is a method to “boost one’s popularity”.

“Politicians use alternative facts and spread fake news to suppress the influence and appeal of their competitors. It’s a toxic policy,” Mokua said.

Civil society has expressed concern over the rise of fake news in Kenya in the fast approaching elections. Activist groups say they fear the trend could lead to a disruption of the peace.

“We are concerned that social media influencers have become guns to spread misinformation,” one of the lobby groups said in April this year.

“Voters lacking awareness and knowledge to detect misinformation to make their choices will compromise the quality of our electoral process,” the civil society group added. Influencers are motivated by money among other reasons.

“Young people look for every opportunity to earn money. So anything that makes money for them goes,” political strategist Rita Oyier said.

The Mozilla Foundation has established that social media influencers are able to manipulate Twitter algorithms to determine trending topics.

He identified the use of several methods, one being the use of sock puppet accounts – multiple accounts controlled by the same user.

Another is astroturfing, which refers to the practice of obscuring sponsors from online posts to appear organic. Politicians can also use faceless robots to spread propaganda.

Africa Check editor Alphonce Shiundu, however, observes that there are no “special tools” used by influencers as such.

“What’s happening is these influencers are taking advantage of the content by pushing it and letting the algorithms work for them,” he said.

Do the methods work?

The use of online campaigns to manipulate elections in Kenya is not new.

Cambridge Analytica Ltd (CA), a British political consultancy that has since closed following a manipulation scandal, is said to have helped President Uhuru Kenyatta run an online campaign ahead of the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections.

“We have renamed the whole [Jubilee] Gone twice, wrote its manifesto, did two rounds of surveys of 50,000 (participants),” Mark Turnbull, then Cambridge Analytica chief executive, said in April 2018.

“We were writing all the speeches and we were directing the whole thing… So pretty much every element of his campaign,” he added. Kenyatta won both elections.

“It is difficult to gauge if and how ‘misinformation’ actually influences voters’ choices, but there were certainly a number of campaign sites and advertisements that were flagged by Kenyans and international organizations as using tactics alarmists to win votes ahead of the August 8, 2017 election,” Rebekka Rumpel, research assistant for the Africa program at the Chatham House think tank, told CNBC in 2017.

Mokua says the “dirty online tricks” used by politicians “get results”.

“While it’s unethical and a threat to national security, it gives politicians results and numbers,” he said.

According to Oyier, the scammers rely on “curiosity and ignorance” to advance their agenda.

“Campaigns come from a point of curiosity, which influences how elections go,” she said.

Shiundu said, “There is no evidence that manipulation of photos and videos led to winning [of elections]but there is evidence that misinformation can destabilize an economy.

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