Influencing social media is a growing and potentially lucrative business for young people in Kenya and politicians are increasingly coming along.
“People will know you’re pushing a hashtag, everyone on Twitter knows you’re being paid to do it for a politician,” said Nick, a freelance writer and aspiring social media influencer from Nairobi.
“But politicians wouldn’t publicly acknowledge that they paid an influencer to spread campaign messages. They try to make it look like they have nothing to do with it.”
With the hotly contested presidential election on August 9, many fear that the system of paid influence could lead to manipulation and the spread of harmful stories.
Nick, in his mid-20s, started selling brands online to earn some extra money while studying or looking for a job.
When he gained followers, gambling companies, TV stations, people who wanted to launch a product approached him to promote them on Twitter. He was also offered some political work, where he can earn 1000ksh (about £7) for a few hours of 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 he wouldn’t vote for.
“Personally I don’t mind as long as they don’t promote anything negative, violent or tribal. Who says no to extra money?”
However, it is serious business for parties and candidates.
“It’s a huge activity. Billions of people switch hands during the political season,” said Gordon Opiyo, a long-time political adviser who works with clients who support Vice President and candidate William Ruto.
Gordon says that for people hired by clients to plan the campaign, the first task is to recruit a group of so-called micro-influencers — anyone with between 10,000 and 500,000 followers. They then create a group chat and outline the strategy, distributing instructions for the hashtags to use, photos, and talking points.
The goal is to master 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 is usually used to generate traction around more divisive topics.
Experts say almost any attempt to get a political hashtag trending is likely to get paid.
“When you see content with a hashtag, you know it’s endgame to create the hashtag trend,” said Brian Obilo, who researched these networks for the Mozilla Foundation in Kenya.
“They may claim that the tags are being used to mobilize supporters, but if you look at accounts that power the tags, you see that the accounts are complicit in spreading disinformation online. You know someone is bankrolling it.”
Politicians keep their distance all the time, Gordon says.
“The main sponsors are usually aloof. You never get them a formal contract… because they know it’s a very gray area.”
According to Code for Africa’s iLAB, a team that conducts early warning detection of hate speech and coordinated disinformation campaigns, it uses the hashtag #RutoMalizaUfungwe (in English: “[Deputy President] Ruto, end your term and go to jail”) was the number one trend on Twitter after it was promoted by a core of new apparently fake accounts.
Many of them referred to the post-election violence in 2007 that led to the trial of Ruto in The Hague, and some reports contained hate speech.
As in previous years, concerted efforts have been made to question the integrity of the main electoral governing body.
Isaac wants a career in politics. He promotes Ruto’s campaign and says he is paid to post 30 tweets a day.
Last month, he pressed a label that claimed the head of the national electoral body could not be trusted.
In June, Twitter suspended 41 accounts involved in promoting a similar hashtag, suggesting that Mr. Wafula Chebukati, the head of TBEN Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), supported Mr. Ruto, for violations of his manipulation and spam policy.
Twitter told the TBEN that it “prohibits attempts to use our services to manipulate or disrupt social processes, including by disseminating false or misleading information about the procedures or circumstances surrounding participation in a social procedure”.
This is part of a broader campaign to discredit institutions that is on the rise and has led to electoral violence in the past, says Allan Cheboi of Code for Africa. The organization has seen attempts to discredit the IEBC on TikTok and in anonymous articles that have circulated on WhatsApp.
The amalgamation of influencer economics and politics seems to be growing in Kenya. Influencer marketing agency Twiva, which appears to be using its platform to work with political campaigns, declined to comment on why it hasn’t 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 how to influence projects, believes a more effective approach is to pay top political influencers to talk about certain topics for a week. Instead of a quick-shared hashtag and pre-scripted talking points, it looks real.
“Politicians see organic conversations as powerful because they don’t seem to be paid for it… but in fact they are. It’s all about perception,” said Abraham, who is campaigning with the Raila Odinga camp.
A lot of money is funding these social media activities. From three typical jobs per month, a macro influencer (followers approaching the one million mark) or strategist can receive five million ksh (£35,000), which is also shared by the smaller influencers.
But while there is money to be made, some influencers aren’t exactly happy with their employers.
“We can spread false information about a certain politician and other days praise their opponents. Depends on who pays for the job,” Alex, not his real name, says via WhatsApp. After his main account on Twitter is suspended, he feels frustrated because he can’t work.
“It’s like a tree. We’re just the leaves. Why am I saying this? Because influencers can be replaced at any time.”
Like Alex, Nick is not enthusiastic about this profession. He says political jobs are notoriously bad for a crucial reason.
“There’s a good chance you won’t get paid. It’s not the same as any other marketing job,” he says. “First of all, you don’t really believe in what you’re doing. You’re just doing it for the money and that money may not come. Personally, I’m not a fan of it.”
Additional reporting by Peter Mwai, images by Jacqueline Galvin and Olaniyi Adebimpe, and social media analysis by Shayan Sardarizadeh.