How Kenyans Were Used to Cleanse Uhuru in Pandora Papers

  • President Uhuru Kenyatta in Kirinyaga County on October 18, 2021.
    President Uhuru Kenyatta in Kirinyaga County on October 18, 2021.
  • Mozilla Foundation has released another report that revealed how online disinformation campaigns were used to absolve President Uhuru Kenyatta after he was mentioned in the Pandora Papers.

    Investigations carried out by data journalist Odanga Madung and cybersecurity analyst Brian Obilo revealed how well-paid disinformation influencers and complex tactics were used in manipulating Twitter’s trending algorithm

    The report by Mozilla indicated that after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published the Pandora Papers and Uhuru's name was mentioned, and the public started demanding answers another PR campaign was being planned to cleanse the President.

    Since millions of Kenyans were using Twitter to express their disappointment and call the President out, the social media platform became the perfect place for the counter-narrative operation that was mounted.

    An illustration of verified Twitter account
    An illustration of verified Twitter account

    "As a result, a distorted perspective began to gain momentum — one where Kenyans appeared outraged not by the Pandora Paper’s damning findings, but by their implication that Uhuru Kenyatta is guilty of wrongdoing," the report indicated.

    According to the report, the Pandora Papers misleading campaigns used astroturfing to manipulate Twitter’s trending algorithm. There was an increase in fabricated tweets and hashtags that showed support for President Kenyatta.

    "Several of the participating accounts tweeted nothing but political hashtags for days. The accounts involved also repetitively used the same set of media assets in their tweets, or repeated specific phrases. And accounts mimicking celebrities were used heavily in classic bait and switch fashion," the report read in part.

    Madung and Obilo also found that lies were also spread on Twitter and gave an example of a fabricated picture of how Economist Reginald Kadzutu, during an interview with the BBC was shared on the platform showing that he supported President Kenyatta.

    "Completely fabricated content was also sprinkled in with the astroturf content. For example, Reginald Kadzutu, an economist with Amana Capital, had his likeness used in several tweets to make it appear as if he had done an interview for the BBC supporting President Uhuru Kenyatta."

    "The image attributes a quote about the legalities of offshore accounts to him. But Kadzutu and the BBC confirmed that no such interview had happened. The image is fake, but it remains published on Twitter," the report stated.

    The Mozilla Fellows also discovered that disinformation influencers were hired to push the narrative and most of them believe they are not doing anything wrong. 

    During the investigations, the duo also discovered that accounts mimicking public figures were used by the influencers in classic bait and switch fashion. The report stated that it was part of a formula where people use similar and appealing content to gain followers for an account.

    "The identities of Diana Marua and Lillian Ng’ang’a, both local celebrities in Kenya, were used to spread disinformation for the #offshoreaccountfacts campaign. We reached out to them and both denied any association with the accounts we identified."

    Mozilla stated that after reviewing the two hashtags and interviewing influencers involved in the campaign, they were able to understand its message. 

    According to the report, the focus of the campaign was to emphasize that: 

    1. Uhuru was not a direct beneficiary of the accounts and he did not steal any of the money that was highlighted.

    2. The house the family bought through the offshore activity actually appreciated and therefore it was a good investment.

    3. The amount that was identified, $30 million, was very little compared to other bits of wealth that the Kenyattas have in Kenya and therefore it isn’t a big deal.

    4. Uhuru Kenyatta should be praised for the transparency he showed in his response to the Pandora Papers.

    5. It’s not illegal to have any money in offshore accounts as a public official and they actually confer some advantages.

    Undated image of President Uhuru Kenyatta during a virtual summit at State House, Nairobi.
    Undated image of President Uhuru Kenyatta during a virtual summit at State House, Nairobi.
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