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Social media is hijacked to subtly suppress opposing voices. Insights from Kenya

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Kenya has a particularly vocal political audience on Twitter. Commonly known as KOT (Kenyans on Twitter), they have made the platform an integral part of political talks in the country. These vocal digital actors have the power to shape debates both offline and on other media platforms.

However, a recent report on Twitter usage in Kenya revealed its downsides. Hidden are “shadowy groups” who use sophisticated tactics to spread disinformation and discredit certain groups and individuals. In particular, those who deal with political issues are on the receiving end.

The report was published by the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to ensure that the Internet remains a public resource that is open and accessible to all.

Prepared with data from May and June 2021, it revealed at least 11 disinformation campaigns with more than 23,000 tweets and 3,700 participating accounts. These groups used bots – automated software that performed repetitive tasks online. They also use “sock puppet” accounts which are fake accounts primarily created around

Create malicious content, generate fake interactions and finally hijack Twitter’s own trending algorithm.

To give their campaigns legitimacy, the groups also used well-known “influencers” to get their messages across, often coordinated attacks on targeted individuals or campaigns.

The report also identified hashtags that have been sponsored or paid for by Kenya’s key political actors to control the national political narrative through various disinformation practices.

Twitter took action against over 100 accounts operating in the country that were reported to have been involved in “breaches of its platform tampering and spam policy”.

Worryingly, these accounts targeted not only campaigns but individuals as well, many of whom were now afraid of engaging in online debates. The report said members of the Linda Katiba movement (a pro-democracy activist group) and members of the Kenyan judiciary were victims of most of the attacks.

For example, the hashtag #wakorajudges (wakora is a Kiswaheli word freely translated as “erroneous”) was used to criticize and abuse judges who were judged to have violated the government. One such ruling was the Court of Appeal ruling that upheld an earlier Supreme Court ruling illegal an attempt by the government to amend the Constitution.

Read more: How authoritarian rulers manage their international image

Social media give ordinary people the freedom, even if only nominal, to express themselves and their capacity to act. These platforms are particularly popular in tightly controlled communication environments. This is due to their ability to undermine repressive state legislation or control over the traditional media.

In addition, editors and other actors – such as advertisers and the state – can directly and indirectly determine who and what is heard on the basis of traditional editorial cultures. Social media generally undermines these forms of message “gatekeeping”.

The users of social media in Africa have therefore created important “niches of freedom” in these digital spaces. As a result, they encourage much-needed political “indiscipline” by legitimizing and popularizing alternative political discourses.

The invasion and arming of the digital public by well-equipped state actors and various shadow groups is therefore worrying. The interests, incentives, and intentions of such groups can vary. It is clear, however, that they are increasingly undermining the potential of these platforms to facilitate open and informed debate.

Subtle oppression

Authoritarian governments have traditionally used internet shutdowns and throttling to quell dissent. Although these methods are still practiced, they now draw unwanted international attention to repressive states and governments. Countries such as Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania have widely condemned such practices in the past.

Read more: Shutting down the internet doesn’t work – but governments keep doing it

Because of this, many of these governments are beginning to adopt much more subtle and sophisticated ways of controlling or shaping political agendas and discourses.

In Tanzania, for example, copyright laws are subtly used to silence activists online. Activists have allegedly been subjected to government intimidation for exploiting the controversial US Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The law provides guidance on how to deal with copyright complaints, including violations of media use of the platform.

Last October, the account of a Tanzanian activist using the Twitter handle @ Kigogo2014 was blocked by Twitter. This is because there have allegedly been “over 300” complaints that the account violated its copyright policies.

In an interview with the BBC, @ Kigogo14 said that more than 1,000 tweets were copied from his account and used to build three websites. The complainants then used these websites to prove a violation of copyright laws. In order to reactivate his account, Twitter asked him to provide his personal information, which would have exposed his identity to the authorities.

Cases have also been reported in Nigeria of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act being used to harass activists and journalists.

What can be done to protect this space?

While civil society activism is increasingly relying on the political potential of social media, the exploitation of these platforms is now threatened. Effective use of social media is determined not only by access, but also by the ability to understand the mechanisms behind how it works. Resources are important, as is digital competence.

The public must have the ability to distinguish organic conversation from sponsored and manipulated content. Without this, they remain prone to misinformation. There is also the risk that these spaces will be dominated by the powerful and their interests and that the egalitarian promise of the platforms as genuine deliberative spaces will be permanently postponed.

Activists and pro-democracy groups need to rethink the future of activism in a digital world. This is a world where they do not control the infrastructures of such communication. They must continue to advocate transparency and public digital literacy campaigns and be at the center of the debates over any legislative effort aimed at giving even more power to the big tech companies or the state they often tacitly partner with.

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