The week before Kenya’s highly contentious national election in August, Facebook did something extraordinary for a typically apolitical mega corporation: It took out full-page ads in local papers warning of the spread of fake news and released a tool designed to help people spot it.
Fake news had grown so pervasive in Kenyan politics and on social media that human rights monitors worried it might factor in stirring the sort of widespread tribal violence that had marred previous elections, where thousands of Kenyans died and thousands more were displaced. A survey of 2,000 Kenyans conducted a month before the tightly contested election found that 90 percent of respondents had come across fake news, with half of the respondents saying they got their news on social media.
“In Kenya,” the researchers wrote, “social media is fundamentally reshaping how citizens communicate and how brands and campaigners get their message across.”
This week it was revealed that executives from Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm linked to the Trump campaign and now at the center of a global scandal, were caught on tape boasting about having influenced over 200 elections around the world through a mixture of fake news, bribes, and entrapment, including Kenya's elections in 2013 and 2017.
Now, analysts, political opponents, and human rights monitors are asking just how much influence Cambridge Analytica had on last August’s election and the explosive growth of fake news, how much Facebook user data was used in their effort, and what if anything was done to stop it. Lawyers for the opposition NASA party are currently weighing possible legal action against the British data firm.
Specifically, the firm’s managing director of politics, Mark Turnbull, was filmed claiming his team ran incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaign: “We have rebranded the entire party twice, written their manifesto, done two rounds of 50,000 surveys,” Turnbull said in the undercover video. “Then we’d write all the speeches and we’d stage the whole thing. So just about every element of his campaign.”
The claims surfaced just as the U.S. embassy in Nairobi unveiled a new strategy to contain the country’s exploding fake news crisis, ironically ensnaring President Kenyatta in a worldwide election meddling conspiracy, which features — you guessed it — fake news.
Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party has grudgingly acknowledged employing Cambridge Analytica, but downplayed Turnbull’s claims and the firm’s role in the campaign. “They were basically branding and all that, but not directly,” Jubilee Party Vice Chairman David Murathe said in the party’s first public comment on the situation.
But observers and opponents aren’t convinced, and they warn that fake news will have lasting effects on Kenya’s democracy.
Cambridge Analytica "planted seeds of discord that will take generations to heal," Norman Magaya, CEO of NASA, Kenya’s largest opposition coalition, told VICE News.
“American political theater”
The extent of Cambridge Anaytica’s role in Kenyatta’s re-election campaign remains unclear beyond Turnbull’s boasts. But its website gives some clues: Cambridge Analytica used its site to play up the kind of influence it carried in major elections around the world. Specifically, it boasted about its success in Kenya, where the firm claimed to have surveyed more than 47,000 people at one point, in order to harvest user data around "key national and local political issues, levels of trust in key politicians, voting behaviours/intentions,” which they then deployed through an "online social media campaign to generate a hugely active online following."
Though the site didn’t mention for which political party they applied their services, thanks to an ongoing investigation from U.K.-based outlet Channel 4, we now know it to be Kenyatta’s Jubilee campaign.
In his first comments to Western media on the matter, Raphael Tuju, secretary general of Jubilee Party, rejected the idea his party played a role in the spread of fake news and other tactics CA executives boasted about.
“We’re not in the business of fake news, we’re not in the business of lying, making stuff up, and we’re not in the business of entrapment,” Tuju told VICE News. “There are companies that do this, but to me that crosses a line.”
Tuju said the current conversation surrounding his party’s ties to the British firm amounted to “American political theater,” which “Jubilee Party does not want to be a part of.”
“We don’t think Facebook or data psychoanalysis can win an election. Those who think so, let them try,” Tuju added.
"We did not promote any fabricated news"
A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica acknowledged the firm had played a role in the election but rejected “allegations made in media reports that it conducted a negative media campaign in the recent Kenyan election or that it was in any way responsible for aggravating ethnic tensions relating to that election.”
“To the contrary, our marketing was based on positive and inclusive core campaign messages. We did not promote any fabricated news stories or any negative content,” the spokesperson added.
Kenya’s leading opposition coalition isn’t so sure that’s true.
Muhammad Nyamwanda, director of digital media for the NASA coalition, pointed to a glut of viral attack videos that seemed to pollute Facebook overnight, spreading fear of violence, destitution and tribal tensions in the lead-up to the vote. His team first began to notice something strange back in January, when they started seeing videos on WhatsApp and other social media that portrayed an apocalyptic vision of the future if opposition leader Raila Odinga got elected. And what struck them most about these videos was their professionalism.
“Normally when it is propaganda, it is done by amateurs, but with these videos, we were surprised by the finishing of the product. They were making very, very clean stuff, though the content was repugnant and incendiary.”
"That's a lot of views.”
According to Nyamwanda, it was in March 2017, as if overnight, that Jubilee’s campaign kicked up a notch, and started rapidly spreading divisive messages on Google, Facebook and Twitter.
On Facebook, Harris Media LLC, a right-wing Western media firm based in Austin, Texas, opened the Real Raila page in March, and quickly gained 100,000 followers, before eventually doubling to more than 200,000. “Those are definitely followers who were bought,” Nyamwanda said. “You cannot grow organically like that.”
Some of the videos on the page had more than 500,000 views, a remarkable figure given the number of people following the page, and in a country where there are roughly 5 million Facebook users in total.
"That's a lot of views," Nyamwanda said.
Nyamwanda told VICE News that his campaign had contacted Facebook about the videos but it didn’t respond. He also said he mobilized the party’s supporters to report the videos on the site over 100,000 times, but nothing happened. Facebook did not respond to VICE News’ inquiry regarding this claim.
A Facebook spokesperson told VICE News that the company was “in contact with all political parties in Kenya during the election period” but that it “did not provide any support for campaigns run by Cambridge Analytica in Kenya.”
But one source with intimate knowledge of Cambridge Analytica's operations in Kenya ahead of the election told VICE News the company's executives are "massive bullshitters," and urged us not to believe all the hype around the scale of its operation there.
The source, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the firm’s team in Nairobi consisted of two consultants on the ground, and one project manager. The team's main role was to run the media campaign, including analyzing the domestic press, training up the local comms team and coming up with the messaging that was to be used.
"It was a really boring, straightforward plugging-in, tidying, and polishing exercise on that campaign," the source said. (Privacy International researcher Claire Lauterbach was also able to confirm that at least three Cambridge Analytica employees had access to the Jubilee Party website during the campaign.)
They also collaborated on speechwriting for Kenyatta, but denied outright that they had anything to do with the slickly produced fake news site “Real Raila”, which Privacy International says was masterminded by Harris Media.
There is no concrete link between Harris Media and Cambridge Analytica, though both have worked on the Ted Cruz and Donald Trump campaigns, as well as the Kenyatta campaign. And multiple sources speaking to VICE News pointed to a general belief in Nairobi that Western firms like both of them took on a collaborative effort to cast fear over the entire the democratic process in Kenya. Nyamwanda’s NASA coalition also employed Western firms throughout the campaign, though did not enjoy the sort of robust resources their opponents employed.
Cambridge Analytica didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment on whether it has a relationship with Harris Media.
“Untested ground fraught with great risk”
The extent of Cambridge Analytica’s influence is also obscured by the simple fact that Kenya doesn’t have any data protection laws, Privacy International policy officer Lucy Purdon said.
In that environment, there is no way of verifying just how much information may have been collected or shared by either Facebook and other platforms, or data analytics firms working in Kenya during the elections.
“As Kenya has no data protection laws, it could be anything,” Purdon told VICE News. “The potential data-gathering could be extremely intrusive, including sensitive personal data such as a person's ethnicity. In a country like Kenya, where there is history of ethnic tensions resulting in political violence, campaigning based on data analytics and profiling is untested ground fraught with great risk.”
“If Cambridge Analytica was responsible for this, then a great injustice has been done to Kenya, a big, huge, massive injustice was done to the people of Kenya.”
The problem is that firms like Cambridge Analytica are well-versed in the skills needed to hide their presence in these campaigns. “We’re used to operating through different vehicles, in the shadows,” Nix told Channel 4’s undercover reporters. Speaking about a unique self-destructing email system they employ, Nix added: “There’s no evidence, there’s no paper trail, there’s nothing.”
Though observers couldn’t pin Cambridge Analytica to specific examples of the sort of toxic fake news that was in abundance during the election season, they did point out stark changes in how Jubilee ran its campaign, and the sort of effect that ended up having on the democratic process.
Edwin Sifuna, the secretary general of the Orange Democratic Movement, echoed Kegoro’s observations, saying the country was already deeply divided along tribal lines, making Cambridge Analytica and Harris Media’s campaign efforts all the more threatening.
"During the campaign, we saw some extremely divisive messaging from the Jubilee Party," Sifuna told VICE News.
"When you spread tribal animosity and fear, it not only serves to bring your opponent down, it also galvanized the turnout of the tribes that have been mobilized. It creates a siege mentality among that tribe." (Dozens of Kenyans died in election-related violence during the 2017 vote.)
George Kegoro, executive director of Kenya Human Rights Commission, said it was impossible to know the true extent of Cambridge Analytica’s influence because the firm had left “no smoking gun,” but highlighted similarly dark characteristics that he said were unique to the 2017 election cycle.
“What we know is that they had a role in the election. What we know also is that this election was run on a deliberate narrative of fear,” Kegoro said. “Fear was created in the population that there would be violence in the election, and that was a big factor in how everything was run. If Cambridge Analytica was responsible for this, then a great injustice has been done to Kenya, a big, huge, massive injustice was done to the people of Kenya.”
Julia Steers contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya.
Cover image: Supporters of Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga gesture during a commemoration of the lives of Odinga supporters killed during confrontations with the security forces over the election period, in Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, November 28, 2017. (REUTERS/Baz Ratner)