In the days immediately following the revelations that Kenya‘s President Uhuru Kenyatta kept secret riches in offshore tax havens, Odanga Madung noticed something strange on Twitter. Despite the damning information embroiling Kenyatta in a hypocritical tax system, the prevailing conversation on Kenyan Twitter has centered on defending the country’s beleaguered leader.
The Kenyan President‘s hidden accounts were just a secret revealed in the Pandora Papers, a pool of nearly 12 million leaked files describing the hidden fortunes of a number of global leaders, celebrities and billionaires, all of whom made their fortunes in places like Panama and the British Virgin Islands hoard.
In a new study, Madung and supporting researcher Brian Obilo, both Mozilla Tech and Society Fellows, reveal how online political propaganda filled the information vacuum in the country immediately after the Pandora Papers.
“This is a very common problem with the Twitter platform here in Kenya,” Madung told TechCrunch.
Using Twitter’s Firehose API, researchers analyzed 8,331 tweets sent between October 3rd and October 10th following the release of the Pandora Papers. They discovered two hashtags, #offshoreaccountfacts and #phonyleaks – both of which attempted to undermine the legitimate revelations in the leaked financial files – that plunged into Kenya’s trending topics during the period.
“With the government and president under pressure from rising online outrage, a counter-narrative operation was launched – and found a strong ally in Twitter,” Madung wrote. “… As a result, a skewed perspective took off – one in which Kenyans seemed outraged not by the damning results of the Pandora paper, but by their suggestion that Uhuru Kenyatta was guilty of wrongdoing.”
According to their analysis, these trends were far from organic. The researchers found a number of accounts promoting similar hashtags in repeated tweets and nothing else. The content specifically aimed to relieve Kenyatta by downplaying revelations about his hidden wealth, arguing that the practice was non-lawful, and defending offshore holdings as a smart financial move.
By cross-referencing previous research, Madung also found that some accounts that augment the spurious content were previously identified in order to spread neighboring pro-government propaganda in Kenya.
“Crucially, many of these narratives weren’t outright lies,” wrote Madung. “This was political astroturfing that used a mixture of propaganda and misinformation. It was designed to fabricate a consensus – especially the consensus that most Kenyans support Uhuru Kenyatta and distrust the Pandora Papers. “
The campaign methods were not well developed, but they were organized and efficient. While the accounts were easy to identify through their repetitive imagery, wording, and frequent use of celebrity names, their level of coordination enabled them to break through the noise to reach Twitter’s highly visible collection of trending topics.
While much of the Astroturfing campaign relied on distorting the truth, the organizers did not shy away from fabricating information either. In one example, a picture shows Nairobi-based economist Reginald Kadzutu defending Kenyatta in an interview with the BBC, but the interview never took place – the picture is fake.
After Madung alerted the company to the coordinated campaigns, Twitter cracked down on more than 230 accounts that violated its platform tampering and spam policies.
“Twitter’s unique openness enables research like this,” a Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch, noting that the company relies on a mix of AI and human moderators to detect attempts to manipulate conversations on the platform.
According to Madung, Kenya’s information ecosystem suffers from an established disinformation industry that continues to play Twitter. “Disinformation is an industry like any other – it’s about money, it’s about clear results,” Madung told TechCrunch. “In many ways … [these campaigns] are like any normal agency. “
There is an established formula in this industry that delivers results and expands content right through to Twitter’s trend module. In an interview, a Twitter user the team spoke to stated that he has been paid for the past five years to bring various types of content into the trending of Twitter, including talking points from Kenyan political parties.
Through interviews, Madung also learned that some of these campaigns were recruiting and paying verified users to promote their messages, which gave them an extra boost under Twitter’s trending algorithm.
Anyone looking for work can find it in WhatsApp groups that recruit for various political campaigns in the country. These groups serve as the command centers for the disinformation effort, communicating messages and coordinating the timing to make those messages as effective as possible.
“As one of the influencers we spoke to, he said, ‘Twitter is easy,'” Madung wrote.