The data journalist spoke to DW Akademie about information integrity, regulating tech companies and the future of disinformation.
Odanga Madung didn't grow up dreaming of breaking the next big story or to see his name on a byline in a major newspaper. Yet investigating and exposing rings of disinformation at the highest level is precisely how the data journalist has made a name for himself.
"I originally trained as an actuary," he said in a recent interview. "Most people turn to journalism to run away from math. But I always had an aptitude for data sets," he shrugged.
And Odanga has put his skills to good use, working extensively to map out and expose disinformation-for-hire campaigns in his native Kenya and in the region.
As a researcher with the Mozilla Foundation, Odanga has reported on disinformation and been featured in publications such as the Guardian and WIRED. Sought out as a skilled analyst on the data behind disinformation, he has become one of the foremost experts on the topic.
Odanga recently exposed a shadow economy in the region that includes politicians and organizations that fund a new class of influencers: Those who work on disinformation-for-hire campaigns.
"Some of these people actually set out to grow their accounts to make money off of disinformation. They see it as a business opportunity," he told media workers during a DW Akademie talk at the 2023 Global Media Forum.
Influencers can make $10-15 (€9-13) a day – a tidy sum in Kenya – to push a certain hashtag.
Like many others, Odanga first became aware of disinformation as a global problem during the 2016 United States presidential elections.
"When [Donald] Trump was elected, the whole world was trying to figure out, what exactly is the problem here?" he said. "Is it fake news? Is it disinformation?"
Soon afterwards, he became a DW Akademie fellow and started studying information ecosystems with the nonprofit Code for Africa.
After the fellowship, Odanga applied what he learned in the Kenyan context to study the spread of disinformation around elections. Most recently, he followed disinformation campaigns during Kenya's hotly debated 2022 elections in which William Ruto won a relatively narrow victory. Both sides claimed malfeasance and fraud by the other.
Supporters of William Ruto celebrate after the former deputy president won the Kenyan presidential election in August 2022
Yet, Odanga explained, it is not just elections where disinformation-for-hire campaigns appear. The problem is more systemic.
"Every country has its own seismic political moment," he said. "And in those moments, whether it's minorities gaining their rights or a pandemic, they all rely on information integrity. And there's always someone who has an incentive to try and distort it."
Odanga was quick to point out that disinformation was not invented in the age of social media, nor is AI going to write all future fake news. Yet, what did change recently was the scale at which disinformation is used, the speed in which it spreads and how cheap it has become to spread it.
"Propaganda used to be difficult. Facebook made it easy," Odanga lamented.
The challenge then becomes not a question of hunting down every culprit, but to change the system itself. Tech companies have become even less transparent in recent months, stopping investigations and allowing for disinformation to flourish with little or no intervention.
Yet regulation itself can be difficult to pin down: What needs to be regulated and how?
"The tech companies are trying new approaches around fact-checking and moderation practices, but it really remains to be seen what they can actually do versus how much needs to be fixed by us," said Odanga, referring to civil society.
As far as the role of governments, Odanga explained there should be straightforward regulations on tech companies with a focus on transparency.
"These platforms have no transparency obligations in any countries that they operate," he said. "The question is: Why? We need to know what's going on and we need to have new algorithms tested before they're released into the public."
"People don't just make airplanes and then load them up with passengers and take off," he continued. "So why are we letting social media companies just create features and then deliver them to users without any adequate testing?"
Tech company regulation may seem complicated. But for Odanga, this complexity is a veil many of these companies choose to hide behind while touting another story of progress, free speech and innovation. But this, he said, is only a narrative.
"The companies collect and extract data, then sell that data for a lot of money," he continued. "And sometimes this causes harm to the very people they extracted the data from."
In Odanga's eyes, the issue is therefore not so much a question of free speech, as regulating an industry that makes money off the data of its users. Disinformation is profitable and, so far, tech companies have made little attempt to address the conflict of interest.
"We've allowed American [tech] companies to turn information into junk food," he said. "But they're not telling people what they are serving."
In 2020, Odanga Madung participated in Dataship, a one-year data journalism fellowship from DW Akademie and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). The project was financed by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).