Kenya 2022 vote: The war of words on social media between Ruto’s and Raila’s supporters

By Jeff Otieno

Posted on Tuesday, 15 February 2022 11:41, updated on Monday, 20 June 2022 11:16
William Ruto and Raila Odinga
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta holds hands with Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto and Opposition leader Raila Odinga during the launch of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), in Nairobi, Kenya, November 27, 2019. REUTERS/Monica Mwangi

As Kenya's 2022 general election draws near, a vicious political battle is emerging online. Bloggers and influencers of the two leading presidential contenders, deputy president William Ruto and Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leader Raila Odinga, are outdoing each other as vote hunting shifts to social media. Which candidate will claim the bragging rights come election day?

On 26 January, bloggers allied to Ruto posted a video slideshow on Twitter under the hashtag ‘Raila the betrayer’. The post went viral and dominated online conversations for almost a week.

The slideshow contained mugshots of politicians who Raila is alleged to have betrayed in his political career, which spans more than two decades.

Under each mugshot was a brief explanation of how Raila “used and dumped” the politician. Those mentioned include Amani National Congress (ANC) leader Musalia Mudavadi; Wiper Democratic Movement leader Kalonzo Musyoka; and Forum for the Restoration of Democracy Kenya (Ford Kenya) leader Moses Wetangula.

However, the image that elicited a lot of engagement was that of Raila’s father, Jaramogi Odinga. The bloggers said Raila constantly sabotaged his father while serving as Ford Kenya chairman in the early 1990s.

Sharleen Wambui, an online influencer in the deputy president’s camp, also posted the slideshow for her 3,000-plus followers.

“The story of [Wilson] Sossion [former secretary general of the Kenya National Union of Teachers] is an interesting one. Follow me on this one. Despite Sossion’s tireless efforts of defending Raila in every capacity from the state and delivering the teachers votes in 2017; Raila still betrayed him,” she said, without mentioning that the ODM nominated Sossion to parliament to represent teachers’ interests.

Parody accounts on social media

Parody accounts were also used to tweet the hashtag and generate debate.

The hashtag was posted a day after Mudavadi announced that he would be joining hands with Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) instead of Raila’s new coalition, Azimio la Umoja.

Mudavadi had been attracting criticism following accusations that he betrayed his One Kenya Alliance (OKA) co-principals: Musyoka and Gideon Moi, chairman of the Kenya African National Union.

For weeks, Mudavadi had denied reports that he was preparing an exit strategy, but his plans became evident when he appeared for an ANC national delegates conference with Ruto in tow.

It is believed the Raila hashtag was not only intended to fend off criticism against Mudavadi, but also justify his decision to team up with the deputy president.

Raila’s camp hit back by posting memes that depicted both Ruto and Mudavadi as a team of corrupt politicians capable of selling the country for a song. Past videos of Mudavadi – under the hashtag ‘internet never forgets’  – were also posted as part of the criticism against the deputy president and his newfound ally.

Use of fake news online

In addition, bloggers and influencers believed to be allied to the Azimio la Umoja coalition posted fake news about the ANC meeting, ostensibly to neutralise Mudavadi’s announcement.

For example, a fake statement bearing the image of Martha Karua, leader of the National Rainbow Coalition Kenya and an OKA member, emerged online.

“I cannot attend an event that is a coalition of thieves. I wish my brother Mudavadi well. We hope to create a movement that has clean hands but greeds override anything. Kenyans open your eyes,” it said.

Another fake statement bearing the image of legislator Rigathi Gachagua, a staunch Ruto ally, also criticised the Ruto-Mudavadi coalition.

It said: “Mt Kenya betrayal has started even before elections. I brought Mt Kenya to William Ruto only for him to pick Musalia Mudavadi as a running mate. I cannot attend such a function where Mt Kenya is on the chopping board.” However, Gachagua had accompanied Ruto and Mudavadi to the ANC conference.

Both Karua and Gachagua later denounced the two statements as fake and urged Kenyans to ignore them.

The online battle for votes

The Kenyatta succession battle has shifted online as bloggers and influencers compete for dominance using different strategies, including disinformation.

The battle has drawn the attention of the internal security minister, Fred Matiang’i, who says: “As much as Kenya is a democratic country, people should exercise caution on how they exercise their freedoms. The consequences of exceeding this freedom will be met with equal force.”

So why is social media so critical in the current succession battle? According to DataReportal, an online data mining site, Kenya has one of the fastest growing social media users in the continent. As at January last year, the country had a total of 21.75 million internet users, out of which 11 million were regular social media users.

In fact, the number of social media users increased by 2.2 million, representing a 25% increase between 2020 and 2021. Most of the users are aged between 16 and 64 years and 99.7% of them own smartphones. Popular social media platforms in Kenya are WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Facebook messenger, Twitter, Telegram and TikTok.

Bloggers and influencers for hire

A local journalist working for a leading media organisation says both the Ruto and Raila camps have bloggers, influencers and digital strategists on their payroll to help them win over the crucial segment of the online population.

“They (bloggers, influencers and digital strategists) are paid good money to campaign online. They are also not afraid of using propaganda and fake news in their vote hunting mission,” says the journalist who prefers to remain anonymous.

You can only ignore that population at your own peril if you are a politician seeking the top seat.

His remarks are similar to findings in a study done by two Mozilla fellows, Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo, titled ‘Inside the Shadowy World of Disinformation-for-hire in Kenya’. According to the report, social media platforms are increasingly being used to maliciously target specific politicians.

The duo established that during elections, money ranging between $10 and $55 is sent directly to social media influencers’ via mobile money so they can participate in up to three campaigns per day.

The two researchers believe it is possible that political influencers could be making up to $450 per month by simply posting and re-tweeting information.

“Politicians know that social media is part and parcel of the daily life of a huge segment of the Kenyan population who also happen to be registered voters. You can only ignore that population at your own peril if you are a politician seeking the top seat,” says political analyst John Charo.

The good and the bad of social media

Dr John Nduva, a lecturer at St Paul University, says the use of social media during political campaigns has increased tremendously due to accessibility.

“In traditional media, that is radio, television and newspapers, not everyone’s story can be published or aired. This is unlike social media which gives everyone a voice,” says Nduva, who is also the author of a book titled Social Media and Political Campaigns in Kenya.

However, the lecturer warns that throughout history, any new media if left unchecked can have negative consequences especially in a multi-ethnic society. “When everyone has a voice, ethics is normally thrown out of the window. Unscrupulous individuals can use it to propagate hate and violence to the detriment of communities and nations,” Nduva says.

Robert Wafula of Post-colonial Networks, an activist organisation, says social media has the potential of mobilising voters. “Whereas social media gives people a platform to engage and seek redress where politicians have been found wanting, it can easily create political upheaval if left unchecked.”

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