Election Influencers for Hire: Kenya’s Disinformation Factories

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In a nondescript office north of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, social media influencer Ian James Mwai constantly glances at his two mobile phones, wary of missing an opportunity to promote the political party he works for. The 23-year-old is in the vanguard of the growing ranks of influencers feverishly punching keyboards and hoping to tilt the outcome of the country’s high-stakes elections, which are less than 100 days away. The rising dominance of platforms like Twitter and Facebook has opened up a new front in Kenyan politics, with candidates desperate to draw the attention of the country’s 12 million social media users…Demographics are a key factor behind the drive: Kenya’s population is estimated to be 50 million, more than half of them under 35. Six million youngsters will also become eligible to vote this year as they come of age. It has spawned a new industry – packed with online personalities who parrot politicians’ views, create false narratives, deflect criticism and promote viral conspiracies. And they offer clients something invaluable: plausible deniability. “There are so many teams and personnel out there and you cannot control what they put online,” said Mwai. “My team is ethical,” the social media strategist hastily adds, referring to the 70 influencers under his wing. Charging a minimum of 50,000 Kenyan shillings ($430) per day for a trending hashtag on Twitter, their services are in hot demand.

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