In a nondescript office north of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, social media influencer Ian James Mwai constantly glances at his two mobile phones, wary of missing an opportunity to promote the political party he works for. The 23-year-old is in the vanguard of the growing ranks of influencers feverishly punching keyboards and hoping to tilt the outcome of the country’s high-stakes elections, which are less than 100 days away.
The rising dominance of platforms like Twitter and Facebook has opened up a new front in Kenyan politics, with candidates desperate to draw the attention of the country’s 12 million social media users.
“This election is going to be very close,” Mwai told AFP.
“Any politician who chooses to ignore social media is a fool.”
Demographics are a key factor behind the drive: Kenya’s population is estimated to be 50 million, more than half of them under 35. Six million youngsters will also become eligible to vote this year as they come of age. It has spawned a new industry, packed with online personalities who parrot politicians’ views, create false narratives, deflect criticism and promote viral conspiracies.
And they offer clients something invaluable: plausible deniability.
“There are so many teams and personnel out there and you cannot control what they put online,” said Mwai.
“My team is ethical,” the social media strategist hastily adds, referring to the 70 influencers under his wing.
Charging a minimum of 50,000 Kenyan shillings ($430, 409 euros) per day for a trending hashtag on Twitter, their services are in hot demand. Mwai, who declined to say who he works for, has more than 110,000 followers on Twitter and pays close attention to their online behaviour.
“Mornings are the best time to post online just before people reach the office… since the first thing they do is go online to see what’s trending,” he said.
Kenya is no stranger to election meddling. An undercover expose by UK media revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm that used the personal data of millions of Facebook users to target political ads, played a critical role in Uhuru Kenyatta’s successful presidential campaigns in 2013 and 2017. But today, local influencers have taken the lead.
Facebook pages and Twitter accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers have become a goldmine as administrators are increasingly approached to rent out their pages. A simple search by AFP shows hundreds of Facebook groups named after the two main presidential candidates Deputy President William Ruto and veteran politician Raila Odinga.
Analysts worry the campaigns, driven by a number of faceless bots and sock puppet accounts, are sowing discord with coordinated disinformation attacks.
Alphonse Shiundu of fact-checking non-profit Africa Check pointed to the “active recruitment of online soldiers to blow out political messages for their masters and in effect spread misinformation”.
“People are weaponising trending topics to spread misinformation,” Shiundu said.
Even political veterans are not spared.
At 77, Odinga has found himself in the crosshairs of a Twitter controversy, thanks to the trending hashtag #RailaStateProject, which alleges that his ambition is to uphold the status quo, following his endorsement by former rival Kenyatta in March.
Meanwhile, #hungryruto has painted Ruto, once Kenyatta’s anointed successor, as the alleged beneficiary of multi-billion dollar corruption scandals. Across the political divide, fabricated pictures showing huge crowds at campaign rallies, fictitious poll data and edited videos taking candidates’ speeches out of context have become commonplace.
“So long as they (influencers) have cultivated an online audience, they monetise it: that means they push content for whoever can pay,” said Shiundu.
Exploiting Kenya’s lax enforcement of laws against hate speech or fake news, influencers have muddied the reputation of journalists, activists and even judges who have questioned powerful politicians.
‘Guns for hire’
The barrage of disinformation poses a huge threat to the August polls, six civil society groups said last month.
“We are concerned that social media influencers have become guns for hire who churn out disinformation and hate speech,” they said in a joint statement.
The costs can be deadly.
More than 1,100 Kenyans lost their lives in 2007 when a disputed election result sparked politically-motivated tribal clashes. Ten years later, dozens died in another bout of post-poll violence. But influencers say they have little option but to defend their candidates.
Mac Otani, a digital media consultant working with Odinga’s party, told AFP that when propaganda spreads, he has to hit back to ensure that their base receives the “correct message”. It’s all part of the game, according to Mwai.
“We are ready for the backlash that comes with it. We are ready for the negative energy,” he said.
“We are always ready.”