Campaigns by-passing the law to post toxic online propaganda

The short clip entitled “Kenya in 2020 if Raila Odinga is elected president” paints a post-apocalypse scenario three years after a Nasa election victory.

In the clip, the constitution has been suspended and dictatorship imposed.

Mr Odinga has been declared Life President. A state of terror and lawlessness reigns. Disease runs rampant. 

The country is falling apart as the economy collapses; health, education and social services degenerate; electricity, piped water and other basic utilities have decayed.

“Al-Shabaab has taken control of North Eastern Kenya, the running scroll intones, there is no money for clean water and women will give birth in the streets”.

HAUNTING IMAGES

The slick production with haunting images and matching background images is probably one of the most scary political campaign propaganda videos to ever circulate in Kenya.

It is clearly the work of a professional producer tasked to depict President Kenyatta’s main competitor in the worst possible light.

The You Tube clip is as chilling as it is popular. Since it was first uploaded on  July 10, it has garnered over 80,000 views and has been shared countless times on social media sites such Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram and other chat platforms.

It was posted on YouTube by a subscriber going by the name “The Real Raila” probably related to virulent Jubilee propaganda website, “therealraila.com” which is devoted to scare narratives on the Nasa presidential candidate.

POSITIVE

With headlines such as “crooked Raila,” the narratives are reminiscent of the US presidential elections when then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump branded Hillary Clinton “crooked Hillary.”

On the side of the spectrum is another website “uhuruforus.com” devoted to painting President Kenyatta in positive light, even outlining the promises he has kept among them “a cumulative addition of 2.3 million new jobs.”

There are no facts or supporting documents to support these claims of promises kept although the website has a “blog” option full of positive stories listing the government’s so-called “megaprojects.”

READ: Social media blamed for fake news on poll – VIDEO

The toxic anti-Raila messages provide an example of how political campaigns are by-passing the laws on election advertising by pushing their messages directly into the unregulated internet rather than use conventional broadcast and print media.

The laws of Kenya ban hate messaging and restrict the use of virulent advertising, but the governing party’s re-election campaign has clearly found a way to beat the regulations.

OFFENSIVE LITERATURE

The Electoral Code of Conduct prohibits a political party or candidate from distributing offensive literature, notices, campaign materials and advertisements.

The Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) says that the offensive online propaganda has the potential to polarise the country along tribal lines as well as perpetuate fear and hate among Kenyans.

“This is propaganda meant to dissuade voters from exercising their democratic right to elect leaders of their choice,” says CA Director-General Francis Wangusi who, earlier this week, threatened to shut down websites and social media sites that spread hate or incite violence.

Earlier this month, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), chaired by former National Assembly Speaker Francis ole Kaparo, and the CA jointly released “Guidelines on Prevention of Dissemination of Undesirable Bulk and Premium Rate Political Messages and Political Social Media Content via Electronic Communications Networks”.

SOCIAL MEDIA

The document provides guidelines for political social media communication and requires all political social media content written “in a language that avoids a tone and words that constitute hate speech, ethnic contempt and incitement to violence, harassment, abusive, violence, defamatory or intimidating”.

READ: Propaganda ad targets Raila, Nasa

The guidelines are also very clear that non-compliance will lead to penalties according to the NCIC Act, Penal Code, the Election Offences Act, among other relevant laws.

The hate videos and online articles qualify as hate speech according to Section 13(1) of the National Cohesion and Integration Act.

Under the law, any person who commits a hate speech offence is liable to a fine not exceeding Sh1 million or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or both.

HATE SPEECH

A person who spreads hate speech is, among others, one who “publishes or distributes written material, shows or plays a recording of visual images” which is threatening, abusive or insulting with the intention of stirring up ethnic hatred. 

The hate videos and websites have been running for more than a month now, but there is no indication that authorities have sought to shut them down or apprehend the perpetrators.

One difficulty is that it is hard to link the messages directly to the Jubilee Party or establish that they have been approved by President Kenyatta’s election campaign.

Jubilee can easily plead ignorance even though it is the beneficiary of the dirty-tricks campaign.

Contacted by the Nation, party Secretary-General Raphael Tuju distanced Jubilee from the online propaganda.

TUJU

“I do not know any such sites. And there is no way it can be argued that we endorse messages of a site I do not even know,” said Mr Tuju.

According to Mr Tuju, the fact that the sites were against Mr Odinga and another pro-President Kenyatta did not connote an association with the Jubilee Party leader.

However, the links have been enthusiastically shared on social media by party supporters and officials associated with the Jubilee campaign.

Cyber-crime sleuths would be able to trace the videos and website back to the actual producers, owners and publishers, but for now the authorities are more focused on tracking down freelancers and individuals who may be posting offensive political messages on social media, and leaving the more dangerous campaigns alone.

The electoral body admits the difficulty in catching up with the architects of online hate speech.

FACEBOOK

“IEBC has had its bad share of post-truth era messages,” says spokesperson Andrew Limo.

IEBC maintains that the law is similar for both online and offline messages.

Hate speech is the same whether uttered during a rally or tweeted or posted on Facebook or a website or even YouTube.

While IEBC insists that they are working with law enforcement agencies and the NCIC to address this issue, few people have been brought to justice for spreading hate speech on social media.

Mr Wangusi says that the CA is collaborating with the NCIC and other stakeholders to contain the misuse of technology during the elections period.

ONLINE

Dr Muiru Ngugi, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Journalism and Mass Communication School, suggests that these online messages create a hyper-real or mediated reality which is more important than the facts beneath.

“We have learnt a lot from the US election. Donald Trump by-passed the mainstream media and used fake news websites and social media (especially Twitter) to talk to his people.

In our case, Uhuru is doing the same,” says Dr  Ngugi. “He is trying to by-pass mainstream media to talk to the public using such kind of real estate.”

The use of election campaign propaganda is not new. However, there is a new wave of propaganda never seen before, which researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute in University of Oxford have called “computational propaganda” to explain the phenomenon of digital manipulation and misinformation used to influence opinion on public policy and politics.

PROPAGANDISTS

Propagandists now have at their disposal high-end and computerised tools of information dissemination and obfuscation such as “bots” which are automatic social media accounts that churn out messages giving an illusion of support and popularity. These “bots” or “chatbots” are software programmes with basic communication skills capable of tweeting on an issue.

Through the use of hashtags on social media such as the Jubilee administration’s #GoKDelivers, these bots or fake programmed social media accounts are capable of churning similar tweets to cause an illusion of online support and consequently manipulate the social media users.

Social media propagandists are also using tools such as algorithms and automation as well as human curation to distribute misinformation on purpose to win the hearts and minds of voters.

Use of such tools is a speciality of British company Cambridge Analytics, which has reportedly been retained by Jubilee after boasting significant successes on the Trump and Brexit campaigns.

INTERNET

The 2017 study on computational propaganda found that bots and such kind of social media messaging affected the flow of information in two ways.

First by “manufacturing consensus” which means giving an illusion of online support and popularity of one candidate in order to inspire real support offline, and secondly, by democratising propaganda by opening up the use and spread of propaganda with anyone with an opinion and internet connection.

Dr Ngugi agrees with this; “Formerly, public agenda would be set by the political elite,” but this is no longer the case. “Social media political agenda is now set by all kinds of people and these sources are shifting the ground.”

Propagandists are using tools to distribute misinformation to win the hearts of voters.

Ask your Question: Nema’s Geoffrey Wahungu

Al Gore: Trump is a catastrophe, I give up