Netizen Report: In Kenya and Mexico, Citizens Suspect State Manipulation on Twitter

Flock of birds. Photo by Christoffer A Rasmussen, via Wikimedia. Licensed to public domain.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

A social media tug-of-war has emerged in the face of a nationwide strike by Kenyan doctors protesting the government's failure to honor their collective bargaining agreement. The strike has brought the public healthcare system to a halt and has stoked public mistrust of the Uhuru government, particularly following allegations of millions of dollars having gone missing from the Ministry of Health.

While doctors have garnered substantial public support in their demands, there has also been a spate of social media messages maligning doctors. Local bloggers have identified a strong correlation between Twitter accounts propagating hashtags such as #GreedyDoctors, #MyBadDoctorExperience, and #DaktariRudiKazi (Doctors, go back to work) with those promoting other pro-government messages. Social media experts believe the messages are not being circulated by regular citizens, but rather by government-paid “social media influencers.” Some have suggested links between these accounts and widespread reports of a group of 36 social media influencers purportedly hired by the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit to change online narratives critical of the Kenyan government.

In recent days, #GreedyDoctors and similar hashtags have been overwhelmed by Twitter users promoting the implementation of the collective bargaining agreement, adding to their tweets the hashtag #implementCBA.

Kenya is not alone in this phenomenon. Alongside countries with long-standing practices of promoting state interests via social media commenters, such as China and Venezuela, Mexico appears to have joined these ranks with various recent pro-government campaigns online.

Most recently, after January’s gas price hikes triggered public protests on major roadways and online, a select set of Twitter accounts began promoting illegal activities such as looting and theft, in what appeared to be an effort to influence conversations and delegitimize the protests. Most commonly, they inserted hashtag #SaqueaUnWalmart (“loot a Walmart”) into conversations bearing the #gasolinazo hashtag, which was widely used by protesters. These accounts also propagated images of people rioting, which turned out to be false (the photos actually depicted street riots in Egypt in 2011.)

By visualizing data from over 15k tweets associated with the protests, data scientists at the Jesuit University of Guadalajara observed that the #SaqueaUnWalmart hashtag interrupted the flow of conversations, seeking to associate #Gasolinazo with malicious intentions. Some of the accounts involved in these campaigns have been identified as bots or trolls who had already been linked to harassment and threats against journalists and social activists.

These observations, along with recent allegations of spyware used against researchers and public servants promoting a tax on soda (reported by the New York Times and analyzed by Citizen Lab) suggest an increasingly threatening environment for citizens seeking to advocate and express their views on matters of public interest in Mexico.

Venezuela blocks more news websites, including CNN

The Spanish language version of the US-based news channel CNN, and its corresponding website, were blocked in Venezuela on February 15, after reporting on passport fraud allegations.

CNN is not alone — Mexico-based TV Azteca was also taken off the air on February 16. Since February 7, the Venezuelan news and public opinion website Maduradas has been inaccessible on a majority of ISPs (including government-controlled CANTV) in seven provinces in Venezuela since February 7. The site is known for its summaries of online responses to issues of public interest. In a public statement, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro called CNN an “instrument of war.”

Phishing attacks in Qatar target migrant rights advocates

Researchers at Amnesty International uncovered a wave of sophisticated phishing attacks aimed at spying on the activity of journalists, trade unions and labor activists advocating on the rights of migrant workers in Qatar, a large proportion of whom come from Nepal. The campaign was likely orchestrated by a state-affiliated actor, although there is no evidence at the moment to conclusively identify who was behind the attacks. The attacks invited targets to open links to what appear to be files in Google Drive and Google Hangouts, but actually lead to spyware.

Thai draft law would hand media control to government

Media organizations in Thailand are warning that draft legislation could lead to complete government control over the press. The curiously named “Protection of Media Rights and Freedom, Ethics and Professional Standards” would require journalists to obtain licenses in order to do their work. It also would create a National Professional Media Council that would be staffed primarily with representatives from government ministries. According to Chakkrit Permpool, the former chair of the National Press Council of Thailand, “This kind of thing exists only under dictatorship governments. This is against the new constitution….that ensures media freedom and people’s freedom of expression.” More than 30 media groups have signed a statement rejecting the bill.

Facebook plans to fight fake news in France

Facebook announced plans to combat the spread of fake news in the lead up to French elections in April and May by launching a new partnership with eight media organizations that will fact-check and filter news articles flagged by Facebook users. But some worry that Facebook’s reliance on already-stretched newsroom resources will not be sustainable.

Tech activists plan a ‘Distributed Denial of Women’

On 23 February tech companies and organisations will face a Distributed Denial of Women, a general strike to show how important women and gender non-binary people are to the tech industry. In support of this action, the Association for Progressive Communications’ Take Back the Tech campaign is collecting stories about discrimination and gender in the technology industry and community. Learn more here.

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