For a few hundred euros a day, Kenyan social media stars promote political ideas or start rumors targeting politicians.
In an ordinary office in the north of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, Ian James Mwai does not let go of his two mobile phones: he does not want to miss an opportunity to promote the party for which he works on social networks.
At 23, the young man is one of the influencers who, more and more numerous, are offering their services to candidates to influence the presidential election on August 9th.
“This election is going to be played out very little”, assures Ian James Mwai to AFP: “A politician who would choose to ignore social networks would be a fool”.
In Kenya, half of the 50 million inhabitants under the age of 35, and 12 million Kenyans use social networks.
Influencers have therefore offered politicians to spread their ideas, respond to criticism or even start rumors about their opponents. Creating and raising a hashtag is charged 400 euros per day. Above all, the soldiers of the web offer their customers something that is priceless: the absence of responsibility.
“There are so many teams and people (on social media) that you can’t control what they post,” Mwai continues.
He does not wish to specify for whom he and the 70 influencers he oversees ride, but “my team (works with) ethics”, he assures.
Mwai alone has 110,000 Twitter followers, whose habits he knows.
“The morning is the best time to post, just before people arrive at the office (…) because the first thing they do is log on to see what’s trending,” he explains. .
Social media hijacking has been singled out in previous reviews in this large East African country.
English media have thus revealed that the British company Cambridge Analytica – which used the personal data of millions of Facebook users for targeted communication – played an important role in the 2013 and 2017 campaigns, won by the current president Uhuru Kenyatta.
In 2022, local influencers are at the heart of the game. With their hundreds of thousands of subscribers, their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts have become gold mines.
With a simple search, AFP selected hundreds of Facebook pages using the names of the two main presidential candidates: current vice-president William Ruto and veteran Raila Odinga.
“People use trends to spread false information,” says Alphonse Shiundu, of the fact-checking organization Africa Check, calling for “the active recruitment of soldiers online to spread political messages”.
Raila Odinga found himself embroiled in controversy on Twitter after a hashtag #RailaStateProject claimed that this historic opponent, now supported by incumbent President Kenyatta, would continue the policies of the power in place.
His opponent was targeted with another hashtag, #hungryruto, portraying him as the supposed beneficiary of multibillion-dollar corruption scandals.
On the social networks of both camps, there are also fake polls or doctored or diverted images of huge crowds gathered for electoral rallies.
“From the moment when (the influencers) have cultivated their online audience, they monetize it: this means that they push content to possibly pay,” says Alphonse Shiundu.
They also benefit from the lack of enforcement of laws against disinformation and hate speech.
In a joint statement released in April, six civil society organizations warned of the threat posed by disinformation in the country, which has repeatedly been the scene of violence during the election period.
“We are concerned that social media influencers have become mercenaries who manufacture misinformation and hate speech,” they write.
More than 1,100 people died in Kenya during the post-election inter-ethnic violence of 2007-2008. Ten years later, in 2017, dozens more were killed in renewed violence.
Influencers say they have no choice but to defend their candidate step by step. Mac Otani, a digital consultant working for Raila Odinga’s party, told AFP that when a rumor spreads, he needs to react quickly to ensure their supporters get the “right message”.
It’s part of the game, confirms Ian James Mwai. “We’re ready for the outcry that comes with it. We’re ready for that negative energy,” he adds: “We’re always ready.”