A new research by Mozilla Fellows Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo has revealed that Kenyan journalists, judges, and other members of civil society are facing coordinated disinformation campaigns on Twitter. This research provides a window into the booming and shadowy industry of Twitter influencers for political hire in Kenya.
Madung and Obilo conducted the research for over two months, using tools like Sprinklr, Twint, and Trendinalia. The pair also interviewed influencers who participated in the disinformation campaigns, and collected a vast trove of screenshots, memes, and other evidence. In total, the research uncovered at least 11 different disinformation campaigns consisting of more than 23,000 tweets and 3,700 participating accounts.
Speaking at the launch of the research report, Odanga Madung said, “This research provides a window into the booming and shadowy industry of Twitter influencers for political hire in Kenya. This industry’s main goal is to sway public opinion during elections and protests, especially with regard to Kenya’s ongoing constitutional review process, the Building Bridges Initiative.”
Brian Obilo added, “Amid this chaos, Twitter is doing very little. The platform allows malicious actors to run sock puppet accounts, create malicious content, generate fake engagement, and ultimately hijack Twitter’s very own trending algorithm. As a result, millions of Kenyans are being manipulated on Twitter.”
Twitter’s negligence in Kenya and other African countries more broadly is especially brazen given CEO Jack Dorsey’s public commitments to the African tech industry. Previously, Dorsey announced plans to relocate to Ghana, encouraged cryptocurrency adoption on the continent and even told reporters that there is a “huge opportunity especially for young people [in Africa] to join Twitter and for us to learn to best serve them.”
Highlights of the investigation include the following.
1. Misinformation campaigns are a lucrative business. One interviewee revealed that disinformation influencers are paid roughly between Ksh. 1,000 and Ksh. 1,500 ($10 and $15) to participate in three campaigns daily. Payments are made directly to the influencers through the mobile money platform MPESA.
2. Twitter’s trending algorithm is amplifying these campaigns, and Twitter is placing ads amid all this misinformation. Eight of the 11 campaigns examined reached the trending section of Twitter. The campaigners we spoke to told us that this is their number one target, as it affords them the amplification they seek.
3. These campaigns are ran fast. One of the influencers who researchers spoke to explained a complex system of using WhatsApp groups to coordinate and synchronize tweets and messaging. Anonymous organizers use these groups to send influencers cash, content, and detailed instructions.
4. These campaigns are increasingly targeting individuals. Disinformation campaigns are increasingly identifying and targeting individuals, like members of the Linda Katiba movement and the Kenyan judiciary. This work is also beginning to border on incitement and advocacy of hatred, which is against Kenyan Law.
5. Verified accounts are complicit. One influencer we spoke to claimed that the people who own the coveted blue check accounts will often rent them out for disinformation campaigns. These verified accounts can improve the campaign’s chances of trending. One interviewee said, “The owner of the account usually receives a cut of the campaign loot.” The researchers were able to review screenshots from one of their sources confirming the availability of the accounts for rent from another influencer.
These campaigns are crippling good-faith activism and making the platform harder to use for activists. Good-faith activists are now self-censoring on Twitter.