Trolls and paid influencers are behind major disinformation campaigns in Africa. Allan Cheboi and his team at Code for Africa have developed strategies to uncover those tactics during elections and the pandemic.
Allan, iLAB stands for “investigative lab” and is part of the Code for Africa initiative. You and your team of data analysts and forensic researchers investigate targeted disinformation in Africa. How does the iLAB work?
Allan Cheboi: Our work is complex. We identify and analyze suspicious behavior on social media. Is the account a bot account? Has the post been amplified by other accounts in a coordinated way? Who are the puppet masters behind it? We analyze social media data to find answers to these questions. In Kenya for example, we share our analysis with PesaCheck – a fact-checking initiative and part of the Code for Africa ecosystem – and with verification desks at newsrooms all over the country. They use the findings for their stories, giving them the human touch and sharing the message with the public. A good example of this new way of storytelling are the video clips that our partner newsroom Africa Uncensored produces.
What have been the most interesting and impactful investigations that the iLAB has been working on?
An exciting case was “Online political trolls” where we tracked down Kenyan Twitter trolls. In Kenya there are a lot of political trolls and paid influencers that are operating on Twitter ahead of the 2022 general elections. We are currently busy highlighting these practices because we don’t want to have a Cambridge Analytica case repeating itself here in Kenya.
Another exciting investigation that we did focused on the Ugandan election: “Uganda in Crisis”. The disinformation campaign was claiming that the opposition supporters were looting and destroying property and they posted under the hashtag #StopHooliganism. This led to the arrest of Bobi Wine, the opposition party leader, which triggered protests in the country in November 2020 and led to the death of at least 54 people. We highlighted the connection between the online disinformation campaigns and the protests. As a result, some of the harmful reporting was taken down by Facebook.
Men waiting in front of a polling station in Gatundu/Kenya in 2017. "If a disinformation campaign is successful, thousands or even millions of people believe in a false reality", says Allan Cheboi.
As you mentioned, Kenya is holding general elections next year. Can you elaborate on the disinformation campaigns already happening? What tactics are they using?
We’ve found that in the upcoming elections, Twitter is one of the most vibrant social media platforms in terms of disinformation. Five years ago, Twitter wasn’t important. We believe that it now is because it’s so easy to post information and bring trends on Twitter. The pandemic is also contributing to it as people are stuck at home spending more time online. Every day we see suspicious trending hashtags on Twitter targeting either the deputy president, the president or other people who are politically exposed. We see a lot of bots being used to pass or amplify messages, we’re also seeing graphics, animations or manipulated images. You can often see that images have been manipulated but, in the end, that the message has been passed on. Those tactics are vibrant and have an impact because they resonate with a person who had just joined Twitter to view some content and had no strong political opinion. I think we really need to monitor this and use our newsrooms to dissuade the public from sharing this kind of material.
A nurse at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi/Kenya, shows a vial of the COVID-19 Covishield vaccine. Some COVID-19 disinformation campaigns dissuade the public from getting vaccinated
What is the potential impact of disinformation on election results and society as a whole?
Mis- and disinformation can be dangerous and harmful because it creates a false reality. If a disinformation campaign is successful, thousands or even millions of people believe in a false reality. Such lies can turn deadly or threaten the stability of society. For example, in the COVID-19 disinformation campaigns, some dissuade the public from wearing masks claiming that the virus is not airborne, some are just claims of unverified cures and some dissuade the public from getting vaccinated. This may lead to severe consequences, including death. Disinformation also threatens freedom of thought and the right to democratic participation by polarizing citizens against their beliefs and processes of democratic institutions. This not only distorts free and fair elections but can also lead to violence. Disinformation also undermines human rights, especially in cases where disinformation actors target minority groups, religious beliefs, societal inequalities or gender-related topics.
The fight against disinformation can feel like a hopeless struggle when you’re working on one case and the next one pops up somewhere else. How do you stay motivated?
Of course, you can’t keep up with the ongoing level of disinformation right now, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone is at home using social media and the perpetrators of social media know that. They reinvent their tactics every time we identify them. The eyes of the iLAB team are never enough and that's why we are collaborating with local media houses in each country where we operate. They have the power to share information and influence the masses. Offering them training is really a good way to diversify and collaborate across the continent in this fight against disinformation. That’s what keeps me going. Without this collaboration we will never win the fight.
Allan Cheboi is an investigations manager at Code for Africa – the continent’s largest network of civic technology and data journalism labs with teams in 20 countries. DW Akademie and Code for Africa have been working together since 2018. DW Akademie has been supporting PesaCheck in setting up verification desks in Kenyan newsrooms and has also worked with the iLAB since its incubation phase in 2019.
The project is supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).