Ruto’s political trolls and the emergence of digital vigilante groups - Beaking Kenya News

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Sunday, 22 November 2020

Ruto’s political trolls and the emergence of digital vigilante groups

 

Disinformation, misinformation and propaganda around elections in Kenya are not new.

This remains the most effective tool used by politicians to influence voters in a given election.

Social media is the go-to platform for information especially for young people who currently constitute more than half of the registered voters.

This perhaps explains the reason why in the 2017 election social media was filled with disinformation and fake news, aiming to alter these young voters’ perceptions, views and actions both before and after the general election.

As Kenya prepared for the election, there was a deliberate initiative by a group of Jubilee bloggers and Cambridge Analytica to paint opposition leader Raila Odinga as violent, and anarchic.

This campaign created an impression that Kenya would be ungovernable under Raila well-referred to as 'Tinga'.

The '36 bloggers' crafted narratives and videos that were released, shared and re-shared on social media platforms all discrediting Raila's presidential bid.

Two years to the 2022 election, the same group seem to have been released again, this time against Deputy President William Ruto.

The Star's investigation desk has established a Twitter network supporting President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga's brotherhood.

The network is well coordinated to amplify Anti-Ruto hashtags in a move seemingly targeted at discrediting his ambition to vie for the presidency in the 2022 election.

There have been reports that the incumbent plans to break their promise on a power-sharing and succession pact under which he would back Ruto for the top job after serving his two terms.

However, the relationship between the two has slowly deteriorated with things getting out of hand since March 2018 when Uhuru agreed to shake hands with Raila birthing the famous 'handshake'.

Raila though has maintained a low profile on the 2022 election, there are indications that he might battle it out again with Ruto.

In a research conducted by a group of investigators, the network has created up to 484 Twitter accounts where they amplify hashtags, retweet, like, reply and mention each other's posts.

Their actions according to the investigators suggest they engage in inauthentic behaviour to make the hashtags seem more popular than they were, attempting to influence or manipulate the trending topics on Twitter.

This is further replicated on Facebook with several accounts using the same hashtags to amplify the conversations in public groups and pages.

The investigations established that the individuals behind the hashtags leveraged on the trends to spread propaganda, disinformation and misinformation themed against Ruto.

When did they start?

The posts leveraged on several thematic areas and historical information from media sources and blogs to spread the intended narratives aimed at radicalising Kenyans against the DP.

The hashtags started operation on May 23, when some of them apparent inauthentic personal accounts started and amplified the hashtag on 'RutoGhostNumbers'.

This was subsequently followed by several trending hashtags 'RutoWantedToKillUhuru',  'RutoTheWifeBeater', 'RutoMustGo' and 'RutoWantedToBetrayUhuru' between May 24 and May 27 respectively.

The first hashtag 'RutoGhostNumbers' was aimed at instilling and mocking Ruto on grounds that he did not have popular support in the Senate.

The second hashtag 'RutoWantedToKillUhuru' is connected to a narrative that Ruto had the intention of assassinating president Uhuru in a bid to take over the reins of power.

The third hashtag 'RutoTheWifeBeater' pushed a narrative associating the DP with domestic violence.

The fourth hashtag 'RutoMustGo'had tweets advocating for his removal from the current position of deputy president.

The last hashtag #RutoWantedToBetrayUhuru is connected to a narrative pushed by the network claiming that Ruto had the intention of betraying Uhuru while serving under him.

In the 2017 presidential election, the bloggers used skewed videos on issues that matter most to Kenyans such as health, infrastructure and terrorism to spread the fake news against Raila.

British data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica later confirmed that it was behind the TNA and Jubilee presidential election campaigns in 2013 and 2017.

In an undercover film broadcast on Channel 4 News in the UK , Cambridge Analytica Managing Director Mark Turnbull confirmed that the company had worked for President Uhuru.

“The Kenyatta campaign which we ran in 2013 and 2017,” he said in a secretly recorded meeting in a London hotel.

“We have rebranded the party twice, we have written their manifesto, done two rounds of 50,000 surveys, huge amounts of analysis, research, messaging. Then we’d write all the speeches and we’d stage the whole thing so just about every element of his campaign”, he said.

Cambridge Analytica is credited with helping President Trump to win the American presidential election and with helping the Leave side to win in the Brexit referendum in the UK.

The firm has worked on elections in Nigeria, Kenya, Czech Republic, Argentina, and India.

It has been described as a "psychological warfare firm".

The British company is owned by American billionaire Robert Mercer and alt-right former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

"It was like working for MI6. Only it’s MI6 for hire," a former CA employee told the Guardian last year.

He added, "Such information we just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow, give it a little push every then and now and again......like a remote control. It has to happen without anyone thinking that is propaganda because the moment you think that's propaganda, the next question is who put that out".

Political temperatures in the country have picked momentum despite disruptions by the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Political groupings and formations have started to manifest with Ruto remaining vocal on his stand on ascending to the presidency.

In light of this, it is expected that lots of disinformation and fake news will continue to manifest.

For instance, in total, the five hashtags against Ruto garnered 23,670 mentions combined and were posted by 10,923 unique accounts in five days.

The ambulance chasers

Our investigation was able to single out a network of users who leveraged on the hashtags to market and promote their goods and services.

These ambulance chasers contributed to 7,131 tweets across the 5 hashtags which accounted for 30 per cent of the total number of tweets in the network.

Some 53 per cent of the tweets under #RutoWantedToKillUhuru were ambulance chasers.

This is an indication that tweets from ambulance chasers had a significant contribution to the implication of the trending topics.

The puppet masters

In our investigations, these are accounts that contributed to the actual narratives on the hashtags. We narrowed down to 16,539 mentions tied to 7,488 unique accounts across the five hashtags.

Out of the 7,488 unique accounts, we noted 484 accounts that posted in at least three hashtags. 73 accounts created original tweets using the hashtags while 411 accounts amplified the posts using the hashtags.

Of all the unique accounts, 466 new accounts had been created between April 1 and May 28. Of these, 26 accounts were part of the network that acted in a coordinated way to promote the anti-Ruto campaign.

The most active accounts and the most retweeted accounts are listed below...

Using Google reverse image search, we identified that the profile pictures of the MachungwaMachui1 and KaleeBaee which were the most active accounts had no original pictures but sourced from elsewhere on the internet.

We noted that the interactions on their posts registered the connection between the two accounts.

The two accounts used the same method to perpetuate the intended anti-Ruto narrative including creating fake front pages of leading newspapers orchestrated to deceive.

Further investigations reveal that this seems to be a recent trend of spreading disinformation in the country.

On June 9, the Kenya Copyright Board in collaboration with the DCI tracked down and arrested a suspect behind the circulation of the fake front page of newspapers.

Executive director Edward Sigei told our teams that the board is seriously concerned with business pirating and there is a great need to crack down on the perpetrators.

Sigei said the issue of production of fake front pages falls under criminal forgery and only the DCI can partner with them to arrest and charge the perpetrators.

The  method is also extended on Facebook.

For instance, a post by Otoyo Abange on May 27 used a fake newspaper front page claiming that Ruto’s wife Rachael Ruto was in hiding after being a victim of domestic violence.

Facebook later flagged the post as false information after being fact-checked by AfricaCheck, an independent fact-checking organisation.

Chronological Mapping and persons behind the hashtags

Ruto Ghost Numbers

This trend began on May 23 after the Senate voted on May 22 to ouster former deputy speaker Kithure Kindiki.

The motion of his removal was tabled by senate Majority Whip Irungu Kanga’ata on grounds that he had become disloyal to the Jubilee party leadership.

Kindiki’s goose was cooked after he failed to attend the Senate PG meeting that was convened by President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House.

As a result, the ouster motion was tabled. Being a close ally of the DP, other Senate Members in the DP’s camp had planned to quash the motion claiming that they had numbers on their side.

The Senate has 67 Senators and according to the law, at least two-thirds of them are required to ouster a deputy speaker.

On the voting day, in absentia of 6 senators, 54 out of the 61 Senators voted for Kindiki’s removal prompting an outburst of tweets claiming that Ruto had ghost numbers in the house.

The following morning, Twitter user Denis Otieno-Onyango posted a cartoon depicting animated Ruto beaten to the ground.

This sparked a conversation that resulted in the trend.

Our investigations established that Otieno on his profile had several posts in support of the former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and others that strongly criticised Ruto.

In a poll-based amplification strategy, one of the posts had asked followers to retweet in support of Ruto and like in support of Uhuru which resulted in the trend being amplified.

The tweet alone generated over 500 retweets and 1,000 likes which possibly contributed to Twitter's algorithms ranking the hashtag as trending in the country.

Ruto Wanted to Kill Uhuru

On May 25, Twitter user NgugiMane initiated the second wave of the hashtag this time around spreading a narrative that the DP wanted to assassinate Uhuru in order to ascend to power.

With an animated image used by the Daily nation, the post had similar characteristics to the first hashtag.

The user joined Twitter in August 2019 and account attributes showed that it was a fake account.

The account had no identifiable information linked to it and the profile picture was obtained from a stocked website called ‘essence’.

This narrative was supported by a tweet posted by ismunyui showing a video claiming that Former Lugari MP Cyrus Jirongo had revealed how Ruto allegedly strangled a man to death.

This contributed to the amplification of the hashtags.

Our investigations led to another tweet claiming that a Ugandan newspaper had published a detailed article on how a Ugandan intelligence officer intercepted a plot to assassinate Uhuru.

But Bryan Pearson, the MD of the said publication African Confidential shared a disclaimer about the screenshot stating it was false.

Interestingly, the hashtag shifted to Facebook where a user Esther Gathoni Bigwig posted a claim that after the burial of music producer Bruce Odhiambo held on January 19, 2019, Ruto had hatched a plan to assassinate Uhuru but luckily he was rescued by Raila.

Our investigations identified a total of 18 public Facebook groups and pages with a combined following of 2,750,192 users where the post was shared.

A closer review on the Facebook profile indicated that the account was mainly used to post and share pro-Uhuru and anti-Ruto narratives to public and private Facebook groups.

Ruto The Wife Beater

This hashtag was first posted by user its_MwangiF, a digital media and political doyen at the Jubilee Party Kenya according to his profile bio.

The account which was created in August 2015 also had tweets across three out of the five hashtags.

An investigation on the tweets collected on that day showed a cluster of influential accounts acting as the main hotspots spreading the conversation.

User rehemaa_ was one of the individuals with the highest interaction rate which was attributed to the poll-based amplification strategy.

MugamboWaAfrica was another account that amplified the trend by posting a photo claiming that Rachael Ruto, the wife of Ruto was a subject of domestic violence.

Ruto Must Go

TangaTangaMove1 set the ball rolling for this trend in the early morning of May 27.

On further review, our investigation established the account had been created on May 26 just a day before with its attributes indicating it was a fake account created to amply the narrative.

The profile picture showed a photoshopped picture of Ruto and the user name referenced the term ‘Tanga Tanga’ is a name recently embraced by politicians aligned to the Ruto camp.

A further network analysis showed a cluster of accounts acting as key amplifiers of the hashtag.

cjamehkhanna_mwangi_ and victormochere were the individuals with the highest interaction rates attributed to the tweeting behaviour observed in the first trend.

How Ruto Betrayed Uhuru

Like other tweets where the post had an animated photo of Ruto, in this scenario the photo had hashtag #RentAKikuyu, seemingly spreading the narrative that he was giving money to the Kikuyu tribe in order to buy their support.

Again hanna_mwangi and victormochere were the accounts with the highest interaction rates.

While hannah_mwangi was in support of Ruto, victormochere was posting anti-Ruto narratives.

The posts by hannah-mwangi claimed that while deputy presidents in neighbouring countries like Rwanda and Tanzania are silenced by respective heads of state, Ruto’s visibility is attributed to the work that he does.

On the other hand, victormochere used popular references such as ‘money heist’ and ‘blacklist’ to drive the #HowRutoBetrayedUhuru narrative.

The interviews

Interior CS Fred Matiangi last week said the government has noted a rising trend where the digital space especially social media has turned out to be a criminal hideout.

“We are noting intense competition among various groups and some of the worst in contenders will manifest.  This is even escalating to intense ethnic tension where huge gangs of youth are paid and moved in the blogosphere to attack those with different opinions,” he said.

Matiang'i added, “These gangs or digital vigilante groups are being used not only to attack opponents or those who hold different opinions but spread hate against individuals and communities”.

Matiang'i while appealing to the media to strive to have a solid platform to move the country, he said security agencies are working around the clock to put mechanisms in place that will effectively crackdown on such criminality.

“We are as good as we treat those who do not agree with us. It is evident that the value system is on trial and we can only overcome it depending on how well we engage in the difference of opinion,’ he said.

Matiang'i said as the country heads to a heated political season towards the 2022 election, the media should stand out by telling the truth.

Security analyst George Musamali told our investigators that a time has come for the police to move swiftly and apprehend the authors of such hashtags because they are not healthy to Kenya’s democratic system.

He said though there is no security threat seen in the hashtags, the fact that they intend to portray the DP as a killer should be the starting point for investigations.

“In 2014 we had a Security Bill in place that aimed at dealing with such cases but it was rejected by the courts. The bill had empowered the NIS to follow up on such accounts but unfortunately, if they dared in the current situation it would be an infringement,” Musamali said.

Musamali said if the DP feels aggrieved by such narratives against his person, there are channels that he can follow to arrest the matter.

“In my view, I would say nobody is criminally responsible under the existing laws because the clauses that would have dealt with such under the Security bill were deleted,” Musamali said.

He added, “Such narratives are however not healthy for the country as they can breed animosity in either camp and result in a volatile situation”.

Musamali said this, however, is the perfect opportunity for the National Cohesion and Integration Commission to strike.

He said since such narratives have the tendency of pitting one segment against the other, some people might feel aggrieved and want to reiterate.

He said NCIC’s intervention will play a key role in ensuring Kenya adopts issue-based politics and not banking on situations aimed at weeping up emotions.

“There is also a possibility of self-creation and sponsoring of the hashtags. In Kenya anything can happen because we have seen people sponsor their own assassinations so the relevant bodies should only join hands and intervene before we are subjected to a volatile environment as a result of such narratives,” he said.

Bright Gameli, a Cyber Security Engineer and researcher said the internet is wide and it’s not an easy task to crack such accounts.

Gameli said such negative views on the DP only intend to drive a certain voting pattern in the 2022 election.

“Some of these things are hard to comprehend. Imagine tracking down 1,000 bot accounts to me,  it is not easy. But if the threats seem to be taking a bad shape then the DP has the onus to report,” he said.

A political analyst Joe Abaga Fan Sagero said for over 30 years he has known the DP such narratives do not shake him.

Sagero said for now it is common knowledge that Ruto has lost interest in being the DP and working towards building his brand.

He said Ruto from his early political years has proved to be a resilient character and ready with the art of war.

“It should be noted that Kenyans tend to have sympathy towards those who have been made victims. If you get an endorsement of a sitting president of the sitting president you can never win an election in Kenya,’ he said.

Sagero said politics is all about propaganda and the current narratives are the works of puppets behind the scenes with a target to smear the DP.

“These are what we call political commercials aimed at testing where their target can be swayed and feel intimidated,” he said.

Sagero, however, said the DP should not play the victim by riding on the false narrative of the deep state.

He said if indeed such a thing existed, he would have been made the DP in the first place.

The Deputy President in a recent interview with Citizen TV said he has worked so hard to see the current government in place by dedicating all he has to support President Uhuru Kenyatta.

He said though there are so many people who are equally happy and unhappy with him that does not tie him down from discharging his mandate.

“It is all about how you treat the circumstances around you that determine whether you are happy or not. For me I am not bothered about those calling me names because if I did I would have wasted my valuable time thinking about small people with insults,” Ruto said.

He said he is more focused on what Kenyans require of him.

“There is something wrong with those who insult others and it is their loss. So much said about me in the last two years but the truth is they don’t know what I do or where I stand,” he said.

Ruto said despite the challenges of his relationship with the president and the style in which things should be done, he has carried out all of his assignments.

“It is common knowledge that politics is different from church service. The style of doing things would have changed, but it is the president who determines how things are done. I would be concerned if there was an assignment given to me and not done,” Ruto said.

Ruto said though there are people complaining, his life is easy because he hasn’t complained.

The tweet alone generated over 500 retweets and 1,000 likes which possibly contributed to Twitter's algorithms ranking the hashtag as trending in the country.

Ruto Wanted to Kill Uhuru

On May 25, Twitter user NgugiMane initiated the second wave of the hashtag this time around spreading a narrative that the DP wanted to assassinate Uhuru in order to ascend to power.

With an animated image used by the Daily nation, the post had similar characteristics to the first hashtag.

The user joined Twitter in August 2019 and account attributes showed that it was a fake account.

The account had no identifiable information linked to it and the profile picture was obtained from a stocked website called ‘essence’.

This narrative was supported by a tweet posted by ismunyui showing a video claiming that Former Lugari MP Cyrus Jirongo had revealed how Ruto allegedly strangled a man to death.

This contributed to the amplification of the hashtags.

Our investigations led to another tweet claiming that a Ugandan newspaper had published a detailed article on how a Ugandan intelligence officer intercepted a plot to assassinate Uhuru.

But Bryan Pearson, the MD of the said publication African Confidential shared a disclaimer about the screenshot stating it was false.

Interestingly, the hashtag shifted to Facebook where a user Esther Gathoni Bigwig posted a claim that after the burial of music producer Bruce Odhiambo held on January 19, 2019, Ruto had hatched a plan to assassinate Uhuru but luckily he was rescued by Raila.

Our investigations identified a total of 18 public Facebook groups and pages with a combined following of 2,750,192 users where the post was shared.

A closer review on the Facebook profile indicated that the account was mainly used to post and share pro-Uhuru and anti-Ruto narratives to public and private Facebook groups.

Ruto The Wife Beater

This hashtag was first posted by user its_MwangiF, a digital media and political doyen at the Jubilee Party Kenya according to his profile bio.

The account which was created in August 2015 also had tweets across three out of the five hashtags.

An investigation on the tweets collected on that day showed a cluster of influential accounts acting as the main hotspots spreading the conversation.

User rehemaa_ was one of the individuals with the highest interaction rate which was attributed to the poll-based amplification strategy.

MugamboWaAfrica was another account that amplified the trend by posting a photo claiming that Rachael Ruto, the wife of Ruto was a subject of domestic violence.

Ruto Must Go

TangaTangaMove1 set the ball rolling for this trend in the early morning of May 27.

On further review, our investigation established the account had been created on May 26 just a day before with its attributes indicating it was a fake account created to amply the narrative.

The profile picture showed a photoshopped picture of Ruto and the user name referenced the term ‘Tanga Tanga’ is a name recently embraced by politicians aligned to the Ruto camp.

A further network analysis showed a cluster of accounts acting as key amplifiers of the hashtag.

cjamehkhanna_mwangi_ and victormochere were the individuals with the highest interaction rates attributed to the tweeting behaviour observed in the first trend.

How Ruto Betrayed Uhuru

Like other tweets where the post had an animated photo of Ruto, in this scenario the photo had hashtag #RentAKikuyu, seemingly spreading the narrative that he was giving money to the Kikuyu tribe in order to buy their support.

Again hanna_mwangi and victormochere were the accounts with the highest interaction rates.

While hannah_mwangi was in support of Ruto, victormochere was posting anti-ruto narratives.

The posts by hannah-mwangi claimed that while deputy presidents in neighbouring countries like Rwanda and Tanzania are silenced by respective heads of state, Ruto’s visibility is attributed to the work that he does.

On the other hand, victormochere used popular references such as ‘money heist’ and ‘blacklist’ to drive the #HowRutoBetrayedUhuru narrative.

Responses

Interior CS Fred Matiangi last week said the government has noted a rising trend where the digital space especially social media has turned out to be a criminal hideout.

“We are noting intense competition among various groups and some of the worst in contenders will manifest.  This is even escalating to intense ethnic tension where huge gangs of youth are paid and moved in the blogosphere to attack those with different opinions,” he said.

Matiang'i added, “These gangs or digital vigilante groups are being used not only to attack opponents or those who hold different opinions but spread hate against individuals and communities”.

Matiang'i while appealing to the media to strive to have a solid platform to move the country, he said security agencies are working around the clock to put mechanisms in place that will effectively crackdown on such criminality.

“We are as good as we treat those who do not agree with us. It is evident that the value system is on trial and we can only overcome it depending on how well we engage in the difference of opinion,’ he said.

Matiang'i said as the country heads to a heated political season towards the 2022 election, the media should stand out by telling the truth.

Security analyst George Musamali told our investigators that a time has come for the police to move swiftly and apprehend the authors of such hashtags because they are not healthy to Kenya’s democratic system.

He said though there is no security threat seen in the hashtags, the fact that they intend to portray the DP as a killer should be the starting point for investigations.

“In 2014 we had a Security Bill in place that aimed at dealing with such cases but it was rejected by the courts. The bill had empowered the NIS to follow up on such accounts but unfortunately, if they dared in the current situation it would be an infringement,” Musamali said.

Musamali said if the DP feels aggrieved by such narratives against his person, there are channels that he can follow to arrest the matter.

“In my view, I would say nobody is criminally responsible under the existing laws because the clauses that would have dealt with such under the Security bill were deleted,” Musamali said.

He added, “Such narratives are however not healthy for the country as they can breed animosity in either camp and result in a volatile situation”.

Musamali said this, however, is the perfect opportunity for the National Cohesion and Integration Commission to strike.

He said since such narratives have the tendency of pitting one segment against the other, some people might feel aggrieved and want to reiterate.

He said NCIC’s intervention will play a key role in ensuring Kenya adopts issue-based politics and not banking on situations aimed at weeping up emotions.

“There is also a possibility of self-creation and sponsoring of the hashtags. In Kenya anything can happen because we have seen people sponsor their own assassinations so the relevant bodies should only join hands and intervene before we are subjected to a volatile environment as a result of such narratives,” he said.

Bright Gameli, a Cyber Security Engineer and researcher said the internet is wide and it’s not an easy task to crack such accounts.

Gameli said such negative views on the DP only intend to drive a certain voting pattern in the 2022 election.

“Some of these things are hard to comprehend. Imagine tracking down 1,000 bot accounts to me,  it is not easy. But if the threats seem to be taking a bad shape then the DP has the onus to report,” he said.

A political analyst Joe Abaga Fan Sagero said for over 30 years he has known the DP such narratives do not shake him.

Sagero said for now it is common knowledge that Ruto has lost interest in being the DP and working towards building his brand.

He said Ruto from his early political years has proved to be a resilient character and ready with the art of war.

“It should be noted that Kenyans tend to have sympathy towards those who have been made victims. If you get an endorsement of a sitting president of the sitting president you can never win an election in Kenya,’ he said.

Sagero said politics is all about propaganda and the current narratives are the works of puppets behind the scenes with a target to smear the DP.

“These are what we call political commercials aimed at testing where their target can be swayed and feel intimidated,” he said.

Sagero, however, said the DP should not play the victim by riding on the false narrative of the deep state.

He said if indeed such a thing existed, he would have been made the DP in the first place.

The Deputy President in a recent interview with Citizen TV said he has worked so hard to see the current government in place by dedicating all he has to support President Uhuru Kenyatta.

He said though there are so many people who are equally happy and unhappy with him that does not tie him down from discharging his mandate.

“It is all about how you treat the circumstances around you that determine whether you are happy or not. For me I am not bothered about those calling me names because if I did I would have wasted my valuable time thinking about small people with insults,” Ruto said.

He said he is more focused on what Kenyans require of him.

“There is something wrong with those who insult others and it is their loss. So much said about me in the last two years but the truth is they don’t know what I do or where I stand,” he said.

Ruto said despite the challenges of his relationship with the president and the style in which things should be done, he has carried out all of his assignments.

“It is common knowledge that politics is different from church service. The style of doing things would have changed, but it is the president who determines how things are done. I would be concerned if there was an assignment given to me and not done,” Ruto said.

Ruto said though there are people complaining, his life is easy because he hasn’t complained.

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