Confronting harassment by Kenyan Twitter influencers – recently revealed to have been paid to promote misinformation – is akin to dealing with guerrilla warfare, admits an activist involved in a legal battle to stop a change to the constitution.
“It is waged against you until it tires you out,” Daisy Amdany told the BBC about the Twitter attacks those behind the court case have faced.
The mudslinging led one activist to opt out of the campaign and “at least three people have taken a break because of the level of insults and misinformation that they have encountered”, she said.
Ms Amdany was reacting to a report by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation – Inside the shadowy world of disinformation for hire in Kenya – which makes startling reading.
It shows how shadowy financers have deployed an army of Twitter influencers to co-ordinate disinformation campaigns in favour of a government-backed constitution amendment bill, known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).
They were paid to directly harass and discredit journalists, judges, and civil activists on Twitter, according to research conducted between May and June 2021.
It’s no surprise that Twitter was targeted, given that the East African country has one of Africa’s most vocal and engaged internet communities, known as Kenyans on Twitter (#KoT).
According to the research, the disinformation business is profitable, with political influencers earning between $10 (£7) and $15 (£7) per day to participate in three campaigns. Some influencers were able to reach the retainer level and were paid approximately $250 per month.
Payments were made directly to their phones using the M-Pesa mobile money platform.
Influencers interviewed refused to reveal who paid them, but one told the researchers that the money came before and after the campaign.
Those behind the campaigns used WhatsApp groups to send content and detailed instructions to influencers.
They were instructed to promote tags – trending on Twitter was the primary criterion by which most of them were evaluated.
The goal was to deceive people into believing that the opinions trending were popular, which is equivalent to “paying crowds to show up at political rallies,” according to the research.
Twitter is also accused of profiting from the disinformation campaigns by placing advertisements on its platform.
According to the report, a Kenyan agency that sells Twitter advertisements offers promoted trends for $3,500 per day.
“While we were unable to independently confirm the tweet-for-pay activity described in your report,” Twitter responded, “we were able to confirm the presence of at least one network of coordinated accounts.”
The tech giant has deactivated about 100 accounts run by Kenyan Twitter influencers for violating its platform manipulation and spam policy.
Waves of attacks were launched against the judges, with hashtags such as #AnarchistJudges, #JudiciaryRevenge, #JudicialPayback, and #Justice4Sale being used to discredit their independence.
During the two-week period preceding and following the High Court ruling in May, at least one disinformation campaign was discovered every two days.
The judges found the BBI proposal to be irregular, illegal and unconstitutional, a decision upheld by the Appeals Court in August – although the battle continues as the attorney general is challenging the ruling at the Supreme Court.
It all started with photo-shopped images of those behind the attempt to block BBI, who claimed that the process used to implement the change was flawed and unconstitutional.
“They talked about how we don’t care about peace,” Ms Amdany, who was among those who launched the Linda Katiba Movement (which means “Protect the Constitution” in Swahili) in February, explained.
“That we are foreign agents paid to destabilise the country, or that we are people who are not accountable, the evil society, noisemakers, and loudmouths.”
“A lot of it is used to incite hatred and cast doubt on the intentions and character of the people driving any given campaign.”
Activists were also portrayed as being supported by Deputy President William Ruto, a vocal opponent of the BBI.
Some of the accounts used suggestive images of women as profile pictures in order to entice men to follow them.
Fears for democracy
According to the Mozilla Foundation report, there is little evidence that the disinformation campaign influenced people’s opinions about the BBI court proceedings.
However, the hired influencers have managed to scare away critical voices from the Twitter debate, with civil activists reporting that they now self-censor on the platform.
“What was once a place for some semblance of a healthy discussion on topics has now been completely poisoned. Dissenting voices will frequently discover that if they voice their opinions, an entire army of bots will sit in their mentions “According to one activist.
Ms Amdany agrees, having deleted her personal Twitter account due to trolls a while back, though the women’s rights organisation she heads, Crawn Trust, remains on Twitter.
There are concerns that these tactics will have repercussions ahead of the August 2022 elections.
Previous elections have been marred by deadly violence, but Twitter has allowed political debate to flourish.
The study warns that “Twitter may have blood on its hands for what they allowed to fester within their platform.”
Samuel Kamau, a social media expert, agrees that things have changed.
“At first, social media was a force for good in reviving democracy,” he told the BBC.
“However, over time, people learned how to use it to manipulate public opinion. The question now is whether or not social media is beneficial to democracy.”
According to Brian Obilo, the report’s co-author, one solution could be for Twitter to pause trends during critical times such as elections.
“Twitter could also hire human moderators in multiple countries to review trends before they reach the top of the trending topics section,” he told the BBC.