On Twitter, political misinformation obscures Kenya’s trending topics – TechCrunch
In the days immediately following the revelations that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta made secret wealth in offshore tax havens, Odanga Madung noticed something strange on Twitter. Despite the damning information involving Kenyatta in a hypocritical tax shelter scheme, the prevailing conversation on Kenyan Twitter has focused on defending the country’s beleaguered leader.
The Kenyan President’s hidden accounts were just a secret revealed in the Pandora Papers, a treasure trove of nearly 12 million leaked files detailing the hidden fortunes of a number of world leaders, celebrities and billionaires who all amass their wealth in places like Panama and the British Virgin Islands.
In new search, Madung and support seeker Brian Obilo, both Mozilla Tech and Society Fellows, reveal how online political propaganda filled the information void in the country in the immediate wake of the Pandora Papers.
âThis is a very common issue with the Twitter platform here in Kenya,â Madung told TechCrunch.
Using Twitter’s Firehose API, researchers analyzed 8,331 tweets sent between October 3 and October 10 following the publication of the Pandora Papers. They uncovered two hashtags, #offshoreaccountfacts and #phonyleaks – both seeking to undermine legitimate revelations in leaked financial files – which made their way into Kenya’s trending topics during the period.
“With the government and the president under pressure, due to the rise in online outrage, a counter-narrative operation has been mounted – and found a powerful ally in Twitter,” Madung wrote. ââ¦ As a result, a distorted perspective began to gain momentum – one in which Kenyans seemed outraged not by the damning findings of the Pandora Paper, but by their implication that Uhuru Kenyatta is guilty of wrongdoing. “
According to their analysis, these trends were far from organic. Researchers unearthed a number of accounts promoting related hashtags in repeated tweets and nothing else. The content specifically sought to exonerate Kenyatta, downplaying revelations about his hidden wealth, arguing that the practice did not break any laws, and defending offshore assets as a savvy financial maneuver.
By cross-checking Previous searchMadung also discovered that some accounts reinforcing inauthentic content had already been identified and were disseminating pro-government propaganda adjacent to Kenya.
âWhat’s important here is that many of these accounts were not explicitly lies,â Madung wrote. âIt was political astroturf that used a mixture of propaganda and misinformation. It was designed to fabricate a consensus – in particular, the consensus that most Kenyans support Uhuru Kenyatta and are wary of the Pandora Papers. “
The campaign methods were not sophisticated, but they were organized and efficient. While the accounts could be easily identified through their repeated images, wording, and frequent use of celebrity names, their degree of coordination allowed them to break through the noise to reach Twitter’s collection of trending topics at high. visibility.
While much of the astroturfing campaign was to distort the truth, its organizers were also not afraid to fabricate information outright. In one example, one image shows Nairobi-based economist Reginald Kadzutu defending Kenyatta in an interview with the BBC, but the interview never took place – the image is fake.
After Madung alerted the company to the coordinated campaigns, Twitter took action against more than 230 accounts for violating its platform manipulation and spam policies.
âTwitter’s unique open nature allows for searches like this,â a Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch, noting that the company relies on a mix of AI and human moderators to detect efforts to handle the conversation on the platform.
According to Madung, Kenya’s information ecosystem suffers from a well-established disinformation industry that continues to play on Twitter. âMisinformation is an industry like any other – it’s about money, it’s about clear results,â Madung told TechCrunch. “In many waysâ¦ [these campaigns] look a lot like any normal agency.
Within this industry, there is a well-established formula that works, amplifying content all the way to Twitter’s trending module. In an interview, a Twitter user the team spoke to explained that he was paid to run various types of content on Twitter trends over the past five years, including talking points from Kenyan political parties.
Through interviews, Madung also learned that some of these campaigns recruit and pay verified users to promote their messaging, giving them an extra boost thanks to Twitter’s trending algorithm.
Anyone looking for the job can find it in the WhatsApp groups recruiting for various political campaigns around the country. These groups serve as command centers for disinformation efforts, communicating messages and coordinating timing to make those messages as powerful as possible.
âAs one influencer we spoke to said, ‘Twitter is easy.’,â Madung wrote.