This piece was written as part of Advox's partnership with the Small Media Foundation to bring you the UPROAR initiative, a collection of essays highlighting challenges in digital rights in countries undergoing the UN's Universal Periodic Review process.
Kenya is often dubbed the Silicon Savannah, not just for the numerous tech and fintech startups teeming with home-grown tech solutions for local problems, but also for Kenyans’ ability to quickly adopt tech innovations. It is hard to imagine life without the mobile banking app M-Pesa, which has also promoted economic inclusion. TikTok’s biggest audience base is Kenya, according to the Reuters Digital News Report 2023.
Unsurprisingly, the 2022 election involved the use and abuse of technology, especially via social media platforms. According to Allan Cheboi, senior investigations manager at Code for Africa, after the Cambridge Analytica exposé that revealed the alleged use of smear campaigns to influence voter decisions in Kenya’s 2017 elections, Kenyans saw this as something they could easily replicate.
“They [Cambridge Analytica] claimed to be paid in millions. Local influencers learned from it, and thought, ‘This is something we can do, so why can’t we be the ones to get that money?’” Cheboi told Global Voices in a phone interview. “So this time influencers were the in-thing. It was not recognised as something profitable in 2017.”
The new wave of influencers is a network of faceless social media accounts, by people who often conceal their identities. An investigation that looks into the use of paid influencers to smear a media organization in Kenya found that one influencer ordinarily runs at least 10 accounts, some of which are verified, thanks to Elon Musk’s policies at X (formerly Twitter).
Interviews with three sources hired by President William Ruto’s political party as online influencers for Kenya’s last election in September 2022, reveal a kind of playbook for the use and abuse of social media during elections.
Have a strong persona
Religion played a key role in the 2022 election, unsurprising in a country where more than 80 percent of people identify as Christian. Winning candidate William Ruto ran a fairly competitive campaign posing as a “God-chosen” Christian leader.
As a political card like any other, Ruto’s camp used religion against his political opponent Raila Odinga, with smear campaigns like “Raila is a devil worshipper.” Another smear campaign suggesting that Odinga would close churches if elected president started after a speech by Odinga's wife called for the regulation of churches.
Use unemployment as bait
The three influencers that Global Voices interviewed said they would make just about KES 1,000 (USD 7) per campaign, and about KES 50,000 (USD 334) a month from multiple campaigns, especially in the three months just before the elections. This compares to the KES 700 (USD 5) they make per campaign from similar jobs before the election period.
A proper social media campaign could cost millions, one of the influencers, James (not his real name), told Global Voices, and would employ influencers, micro-influencers, designers, photographers, videographers, and photo and video editors, which is a lot of potential employment.
Know what to post where
A lot of Kenyans are still on Facebook. Facebook groups play a key role during elections. “Candidates went as far as buying Facebook groups so that the group only posts positive messages about the candidate,” James said.
The use of Facebook groups also closely relates to the use of WhatsApp groups as hotspots of election misinformation. Being closed channels, “they make people feel like it's a safe space,” said Cheboi. To this end, the WhatsApp and Facebook groups would further target specific ethnic groups, which would, at times, communicate in vernacular languages and therefore bypass content moderation and fact-checking interventions to flag hate speech.
X (formerly Twitter), on the other hand, is driven by trending topics and hashtags. It is the preferred platform for Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour (CIB), which is where a network of influencers, often using fake and automated accounts, post using the same keywords, topic and hashtag within a short time frame so as to manipulate algorithmic systems, to make the topic trend.
“Earlier, it took about 20 accounts pushing a hashtag for about two hours. Now, it takes more than 30 accounts, and over 1,600 posts pushing the campaign continuously for about two hours. They also need to have unique IP addresses, unique organic posts and come from different locations, so that they are not flagged as bots,” popular Kenyan blogger Cyprian Nyakundi is quoted as saying.
As for TikTok, the platform emphatically “failed in its first real test in African democracy,” according to a Mozilla report that found over 130 videos with a reach of over 4 million users containing political misinformation around the September 2022 Kenyan election.
The type of false information that spread across all of these platforms included fabricated newspaper front pages, photoshopped and obsolete images purporting to show that a candidate drew a sizable crowd to a rally, and, for the first time ever, a fake manifesto.
Discredit, disenfranchise, and compromise mainstream media
In the 2022 elections, the Media Council of Kenya flagged mainstream media’s biased coverage of the two top presidential candidates: 61.2 percent media coverage for Raila Odinga and 38.2 percent for William Ruto.
But, according to another of our sources, Jim (name changed), their proactive online campaigns for a winning candidate whose mainstream media coverage was less has had a lasting impact.
“Now other politicians can see that you can use social media to defeat opponents,” Jim said. “He [Ruto] was not given enough airtime. So we did not rely on mainstream media, and we got the attention of people in rural areas, especially through Facebook.”
As a consequence of biased mainstream media coverage, trust in the media was compromised. In turn, social media influencers and bloggers became alternative sources of information.
Don’t just stop at winning the election
Jim says he now officially works at State House. After Ruto won the election, they were charged with posting congratulatory messages. Jim and his team now post about the president’s projects. The department runs hashtags like #DeliveringThePlan #RutoEmpowers #RutoDelivers.
According to Cheboi, interventions to curb misinformation had, indeed, been underway before and during the 2022 elections.
“I think it’s the first time we saw a lot of collaboration. Civil society actors got to collaborate with the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), which is the government body charged with monitoring hate speech,” he said. “The UN also supported early warning detection and response, which we used to create awareness and generate civic response by preaching peace.”
Platforms like Fumbua brought together fact-checkers from across the country to train journalists and the public on how to identify and debunk false information. At the same time, peace advocacy initiatives by platforms such as Shujaaz encouraged the youth to preach peace. Kenyan fact-checking organizations such as PesaCheck, Africa Check, Piga Firimbi, and iVerify also stepped in with prebunking interventions, where they would debunk potential false information, based on previous election misinformation trends.
Most of the influencers are university students, on average 25 years old. The oldest of the three we interviewed, James, is 27, and seemingly at the top of the influencer food chain as an owner of a marketing agency. He is also one of the key mobilisers that would be sought after to organise micro-influencers in WhatsApp groups. Jim, 24, is still a student, and mentioned that many of his fellow influencers are university students. Even as he is now a salaried civil servant at State House, he remains a student full-time.
“To me, this is a good career,” Jim said, “It doesn’t take much of my time. As long as I have internet, I can work anywhere. I can balance it with my studies, as a side hustle.”
As the world prepares for the over 65 elections expected in 2024, the Global Coalition for Tech Justice initiated the #YearofDemocracy campaign that calls on social media platforms to uphold democracy by curbing election misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech on their platforms.