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The use of hashtags in propaganda messaging on social media

By George Kinyili

The deliberate use of data, images, and ideas to try and change opinion using hashtags (#) on social media has been on the rise in the recent past. Hashtags are used to unite supporters of a particular political party against their opponents. This is peeking as we gear towards the 2022 General Elections.

Besides, propaganda has been deployed by all politicians and governments during political campaigns with a huge impact in the 2013 and 2017 elections in Kenya. Big data companies like Cambridge Analytica were largely involved. Researchers indicate that Cambridge Analytica’s methods employed in the political campaigns involved working with local research partners to ensure that variations in language and customs were respected and the outcome targeted young voters via social media with targeted propaganda messaging.

This points to the truth that people’s voting patterns can be influenced. Equally, there are high possibilities that online users who are targeted with these sublime messages will respond positively to messages and information constantly shoved their way by companies and media content creators.

In the recent past, there has been a sustained propaganda campaign run by or against politicians. Deputy President William Ruto and Raila Odinga are examples of those politicians who have been targeted either positively or negatively by the messages. Hashtags like #RutoNowResign and #MtKenyaRejectsRaila were noted.

On the Deputy President, twitter users shared videos of Ruto from the past. In one, he called Koffi Annan idle and the user who posted it added that Ruto doesn’t care about the country given the background of the 2007/08 PEV.

Further, #RutoWashWashCartel started after Edgar Obare on Instagram alleged money laundering in Kenya. As this was going on and making social media headlines, the hashtag #RutoWashWashCartel quickly trended. The content and the hashtag were quickly picked by Twitter users and when the hashtag started, it was speculated that Ruto is the mastermind of the money laundering business in Kenya.

Most of the news that came up with the hashtag had no solid evidence and this created an avenue for possible fake news being circulated. In as much as there are people who genuinely discussed the story using the hashtag, there were possibilities that some of the Twitter users actively involved were on someone’s payroll.

A report by Mozilla Fellows, titled Inside the Shadowy World of Disinformation-for-hire in Kenya, indicates that disinformation influencers are paid roughly between $10 and $15 to participate in three campaigns per day. Payments are made directly to the influencers through the mobile money platform M-Pesa. And it was clear that the social media industry’s main goal is to sway public opinion during elections and protests.

The effect of paid hashtags on the coming polls could be intense and will be fodder for spreading propaganda to poison the minds of social media users, and by extension Kenyans.

From research, it has been noted that voters in Kenya do not usually make independent decisions during elections; rather they depend on the decisions of socio-religious leaders, who also take up obligation as representatives of various candidates and politicians.

The utilisation of fact-checking tools and increased digital literacy across the country will play a critical role in limiting hate speech, propaganda, and misinformation. Moreover, it will serve as a solid instrument for deepening democracy and independent decision-making while voting.

The writer is a media analyst at MCK.

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