Africa a prime target for dangerous digital misinformation campaigns during elections

Africa a prime target for dangerous digital misinformation campaigns during elections
Online influencers told ISS they often worked in groups and hired digital foot soldiers from universities to help push narratives at scale. (Photo: Dado Ruvić / Reuters / the guardian / Wikipedia)

Lessons from Kenya’s 2022 poll show the ‘commodification’ of influence, with hashtags and influencers for hire.

When William Ruto and Raila Odinga competed for Kenya’s presidency last August, “we knew that this election was going to be won on tech,” a leading Kenyan online influencer told Institute for Security Studies (ISS) researchers. 

He and others were operating in an environment where the profits from generating hashtags or using coordinated fake engagement techniques to amplify reach saw online influencers reportedly earning thousands of US dollars a day. Some used their online influence to undermine legacy (traditional) media and challenge the rule of law — key pillars of any democracy.

A new ISS study concludes that while disinformation campaigns and influence operations were largely homegrown, Kenya’s elections demonstrated the commodification of influence — a market for hashtags and influencers for hire. This could inspire malign players seeking to ‘stir the pot’ by tapping into entrenched fears or prejudices of online communities. 

The study could offer lessons for other countries preparing to hold elections — like South Africa in 2024 — and for fragile democracies where the usual checks and balances on executive power may be limited.

Kenya’s energetic online environment has over 11.8 million social media users — a figure that has grown three-fold since 2014. Increased access to digital technology has helped advance economic development, freedom of speech and robust political debate online. But it has also enabled coordinated inauthentic activity designed to distort, intimidate and essentially ‘hack’ the electorate. 

In emerging democracies, the ability to rebut or correct false narratives online may be limited by resources, knowledge or organisational constraints affecting independent legacy media or official government communicators.

Online influence reach

The ISS research examined over eight million Facebook and Twitter documents. It explored the market for influence during Kenya’s 2022 election in granular detail, setting out the prices and ecosystem of online influence at that time. Interviewees, including John-Allan Namu of Africa Uncensored, described how influence was “tiered”. People lending weight to a particular campaign could earn around $1-000 to $2,000 per tweet and similar amounts from generating hashtags and promoting pre-determined narratives. 

Online influencers told ISS they often worked in groups and hired digital foot soldiers from universities to help push narratives at scale. Others used bots and basic forms of digital automation. The ISS’ data analytics team found that both the Ruto and Raila campaigns used bots — i.e. inauthentic activity — to win over voters online.

While some influencers’ motivations during Kenya’s election seem to have been ideological, the study found product influencers were a significant group in that period. These influencers usually support merchandise online and, as in the Kenyan case, can temporarily pivot towards political persuasion during elections. 

Numerous influencers used tactics including follow trains, hashjacking and astroturfing in a coordinated way to ‘game’ online platforms and expand their networks. Many used conspiratorial narratives that mirrored those in other parts of the world, most notably the United States, to encourage or discourage voters’ decisions on election day. 

For example, the deep state narrative was used by influencers supporting Ruto. This presented the state under Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration (of which Ruto was a part) as corrupt and lacking accountability. It was used to disassociate their candidate from the previous administration (Kenyatta supported Odinga as his favoured candidate). But this narrative also undermined the key pillars of democracy (media, law enforcement and the judiciary) by presenting them as being ‘captured’. 

The deep state narrative has echoes of the American QAnon conspiracy movement and was accompanied in Kenya by a novel campaign calling itself the Hustler Nation Intelligence Bureau. By becoming members of this ‘intelligence bureau’, the online community was urged to name and shame alleged enemies of the state or those plotting protests in the name of upholding democracy. 

At the extremes, this campaign amounted to digital vigilantism. By operating in the shadows between party politics and the state, some influencers associated with this narrative – who before the polls had government jobs – could give such conspiracy theories an air of credibility.

The study suggests that the rise of political influence as a digital service enables skilled individuals to tap into existing fears, social cleavages and conspiracy theories, and amplify them online. These activities often occur without social media users being aware that they are coopted as cogs in a complex wheel of influence and often distortion.

Targeting Kenya

With its troubled history of election violence, mistrust and contested election results, Kenya is no stranger to influence campaigns. Perhaps the most widely reported were the activities of the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica. Ahead of Kenya’s 2013 polls, it crafted a WhatsApp campaign to tap into ethnic prejudices and fears to support Kenyatta’s campaign. That experience shaped the social media manipulation campaigns of the 2016 US presidential polls, where Cambridge Analytica also played a part.

Now with more of the electorate online and the arrival of generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools such as ChatGPT, the possibility of shaping domestic narratives at speed and at scale is vast. One influencer said such tools would “greatly assist” his future campaigns. The result is likely to be a ramping up of the pace and spread of influence operations online and the possibility of a global arms race in AI-enhanced influence campaigning.

Kenya has a proud tradition of a highly politically engaged population and positions itself as a supporter of freedom of speech. But as other African countries prepare for polls, the prospect of Kenya’s influence expertise being outsourced to potential malign players across the region deserves attention.

Although its operations were largely indigenous, researchers and the traditional media must be alive to the possibility of external players such as hostile nations, transnational criminal groups or terrorist organisations adopting the tactics used in Kenya. DM

Karen Allen, Consultant, ISS Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today.

Register for the 8 August 2023 hybrid seminar from 11:00-12:30 GMT+2, when ISS will discuss lessons from the Kenya study. Join the report’s authors and an expert team from South Africa and Kenya to consider how South Africa should prepare for its 2024 elections. 

Read the full report ‘A question of influence? Case study of Kenyan elections in a digital age’ here


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