Keyboard warriors behind election campaign hashtags
Social media influencing is a growing and potentially lucrative business for young people in Kenya and increasingly, politicians come calling.
“People will know that you are pushing a hashtag, everyone on Twitter knows you are being paid to do it for a politician,” says Nick, a freelance writer and aspiring social media influencer from Nairobi.
“But politicians wouldn’t acknowledge publicly that they have paid an influencer to spread campaign messages. They try to make it look like they have nothing to do with it.”
With the fiercely contested presidential election on 9 August, many fear the system of paid-for influence can lead to manipulation and the spread of harmful narratives.
As he gained followers, betting companies, TV stations, people looking to launch a product approached him to promote them on Twitter. He was also offered some political work, where he can earn Sh1,000 (about £7) for a few hours’ work - a better daily wage than most casual jobs.
Nick says he prefers promoting brands he likes, rather than politicians, but would tweet support for a candidate for whom he wouldn’t vote.
“Personally as long as they are not promoting anything negative or violent or tribal I don’t mind. Who says no to extra money?”
However, for the parties and candidates it is a serious business.
“It’s a huge activity. During the political season billions exchange hands,” says Gordon Opiyo, a long-time political consultant, who is working with clients supporting deputy president and candidate William Ruto.
Opiyo says for people hired by clients to plan the campaign, the first task is to recruit a group of so-called microinfluencers - anyone with between 10,000 and 500,000 followers. They then create a group chat and outline the strategy, where instructions for the hashtags, photos and talking points to be used are distributed.
The aim is to control the narrative around a particular candidate or topic, and bypass the mainstream media by going straight to social media.
Users working in groups of up to 200 often acquire dummy accounts to promote a particular hashtag, which tend to be used to generate traction around more divisive topics.
Experts say that almost every attempt to get a political hashtag trending is probably paid for.
“If you see content with a hashtag you know the end game is to make the hashtag trend,” says Brian Obilo, who has researched these networks for the Mozilla Foundation in Kenya.
“They may claim the tags are used to mobilise supporters, but if you look at accounts driving the tags, you’ll see the accounts are complicit with spreading disinformation online. You’ll know someone is bankrolling it.”
Politicians tend to keep their distance throughout, Opiyo says.
“The main sponsors are usually detached. You’ll never get them having any formal contract because they know that it is a very grey area.”
Code for Africa’s iLAB says a team conducting early warning detection of hate speech and co-ordinated disinformation campaigns, the hashtag #RutoMalizaUfungwe ([Deputy President] Ruto finish your term and go to jail”) was the number one trend on Twitter after being promoted by a core of new seemingly fake accounts.
Many of them referenced the post-election violence of 2007, which led to Ruto’s trial at The Hague, and some posts contained hate speech.
As in previous years, there have been concerted efforts to question the integrity of the main elections’ governing body.
Isaac wants a career in politics. He has been promoting Ruto’s campaign and says he has been paid to post 30 tweets a day.
Last month he pushed a tag alleging the head of the national electoral body could not be trusted.
In June, Twitter suspended 41 accounts involved in promoting a similar hashtag suggesting Wafula Chebukati, the head of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), was supporting Ruto, for violations of its manipulation and spam policy.
Twitter told the BBC it prohibits “attempts to use our services to manipulate or disrupt civic processes, including through the distribution of false or misleading information about the procedures or circumstances around participation in a civic process”.
This is part of a wider campaign to discredit institutions, which has been on the rise, and has led to election violence in the past, says Code for Africa’s Allan Cheboi. The organisation has observed efforts to discredit the IEBC on TikTok and in anonymous articles that have spread on WhatsApp.
The merging of the influencer economy and politics seems to be growing in Kenya. Influencer marketing agency Twiva, which appears to be using its platform to work with political campaigns, did not want to provide a comment about why it has not listed this service on its website.
Flooding social media with hashtags is just one of the strategies used.
Abraham Mutai, a digital strategist who has advised politicians on influencing projects, believes a more effective approach involves paying top political influencers to talk about certain topics over a week. Rather than a rapidly shared hashtag and pre-scripted talking points, it looks real.
“For politicians, they see that organic conversations are powerful because they look not paid for…but in fact they are. It’s all about perception,” says Abraham, who is on the campaign trail with the Raila Odinga camp.
A lot of money funds these social media operations. From three typical jobs every month, a macroinfluencer (followers nearing the one million mark) or strategist could receive Sh5 million (£35,000), which is also shared between the smaller influencers.
But although there is money to be made, some influencers are not particularly happy about their employers.
“We can spread false information about a certain politician, and other days praise their opponents. Depends on who is paying for the task,” says Alex, not his real name, via WhatsApp. After having his main account suspended on Twitter he is feeling frustrated at not being able to work.
“It’s like a tree. We’re just the leaves. Why do I say this? Because influencers can be replaced any time.”
Like Alex, Nick is not enthusiastic about this line of work. He says political jobs are notoriously bad for one crucial reason.
“There’s a huge chance you won’t get paid. It’s not the same as another marketing job,” he says. “First of all you don’t really believe in what you’re doing. You just do it for the money and that money may not come. Personally I’m not a fan of it.”