May 18 This year, the insidious hashtag #AnarchistJudges appeared on the Kenyan Twitter timeline. Obviously, driven by some anonymous robots and reposted by a series of sock puppet accounts, a large number of tweets have raised doubts about the competence and integrity of the judges of the High Court of the Kenyan High Court who have just rejected the 2021 constitutional amendment. Many people falsely claimed that judges were involved in drug dealing, bribery, and political partisanship. It quickly became one of the most popular topics in the country.
In a new investigation, my colleague Brian Obilo of the Mozilla Foundation and I discovered that this malicious, coordinated disinformation attack is rapidly increasing in Kenya. Through a series of interviews with influencers who participated in these events, we reviewed evidence of Kenya’s booming social media influencer industry for political hiring. Members of civil society and journalists are increasingly being attacked by false information. These attacks try to silence them, tarnish their reputation and stifle their influence.
Twitter has had a strong influence on the country’s news cycle and has available features, such as its trend algorithm, which has always been the core of these operations. Many of the accounts and personal propaganda undertakings and political ideologies involved, but did not disclose that they were part of paid activities. Even some verified accounts are complicit.
With the help of Twint, Sprinklr, and Trendinalia, we tracked the disinformation attack data for two months (May 1 to June 30) by mapping and analyzing specific hashtags used by the perpetrators on Twitter. We are particularly concerned about Kenya’s constitutional amendment, which was called the “Bridge Building Initiative” (BBI), which was controversial at the time. The standard involves mapping certain accounts that post malicious content targeted at Kenyan activists and judicial officials. The timestamps in the metadata of these tweets indicate strong synchronization: a sudden burst of activity in a short period of time.
In total, we tagged 23,606 tweets and retweets from 3,742 accounts under 11 hashtags. We are interested in directly attacked citizens and famous civil society activists who openly oppose it. They also tried to discredit civil society organizations and activists, portraying them as villains funded by Kenyan Vice President William Ruto, who had publicly opposed it.
Well-coordinated attacks are carried out through WhatsApp groups to avoid detection. In the group that shared the conversation with us, the administrator gave instructions on what to post, hashtags to use, which tweets to interact with, who to target, and how to synchronize posts to make them trending. “The main goal is to become popular on Twitter,” said an internet celebrity who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. “Without this goal, I’m not sure what our work would be like.”
You can make money if you have money. Our sources say that they can get paid between $10 and $15 for participating in three activities a day. The fixed fee for others can be as high as $250 per month. This is in a country where many citizens earn $1 a day.
Three most Our analysis found that the common victims of these campaigns are Kenyan journalists, judges and activists. For example, many attacks on Jerotich Seii, a prominent member of the anti-BBB Linda Katiba movement, used her or her father’s portrait, pretending to be them, and claiming that her efforts were funded by William Ruto. She told us that the attack on her was so slanderous and effective that she “had to spend a lot of time defending my status as a true patriot. He did things out of love for the country.” Other activists appealed Self-censorship.
In response to our investigation, Twitter deleted more than 100 accounts in Kenya that violated its platform manipulation and spam policies. In an email statement, a Twitter spokesperson wrote: “Some accounts rely on untrue behavior to try to gain followers or reposts (not just political topics, based on our observations); but they are not related to the hashtags cited in the report. Many related tweets (e.g. #AnarchistJudges) are legal.”