What role did social media influencers play in the election? What voice did they give in political discourses during and around the election period? And to what extent did political candidates involve the influencers in marketing their manifestos to sway votes in their favour? East Site writer Steve Omondi explores.
The 2022 General Election in Kenya may be done, but it’s not a done deal. Not just yet. The country is still on tenterhooks with a major petition having been filed at the Supreme Court challenging the outcome of the presidential election which was settled by the narrowest of margins.
The perpetual state of uneasiness, strain and suspense that characterized a marathon campaign period has somewhat eased off, but the country is still waiting to exhale. The earliest such a moment is likely to come will be on September 5, when the Supreme Court will make a judgement to either uphold or nullify the declaration of Deputy President William Ruto as the president-elect.
But even with the campaign season over, and the Supreme Court yet to adjudicate on the petition before it, challenging the outcome of the presidential vote, questions are being asked about the role bloggers and social media influencers played in shaping the contest.
Social media as a tool of advancing political goals
In an era of digital technology, the social media arena became the fierce battlefield where bloggers affiliated to either camps spewed vitriol while engaging in all manner of tricks in a bid to have a psychological advantage over their opponents in the bitterly contested polls.
Right from the pre-campaign period to the official three-month campaign period to the election and post-election period, the Kenyan social media space has been steadily accumulating virtual ‘litter’ in the form of fake news, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda that has grown into a massive mound of online garbage.
At the very heart of it all is an army of tech-savvy digital experts, bloggers, vloggers, communication specialists, journalists and influencers who acted as proxies for the two main presidential candidates, Dr Ruto and Mr Raila Odinga, and the respective coalitions on whose tickets they contested the presidency – Kenya Kwanza Alliance and Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Coalition Party.
But how significant a role did social media influencers play in the political discourse during and around the election period and the eventual outcome of the polls? To what extent did the candidates involve, or even depend on influencers and bloggers in marketing their manifestos and swaying votes in their favour?
According to Nation.Africa, an online platform of one of Kenya’s leading media houses, Nation Media Group, top politicians in the country invested heavily in digital campaigns to shape public opinion online and thereafter woo voters in the run-up to the election.
In an article published on August 3, just six days to the election, Nation.Africa revealed that the leading candidates in the presidential race had invested heavily in building digital war chests to interact with their supporters and market their manifestos and agenda.
“The leaders have assembled an army of bloggers, communication specialists, journalists, vloggers and digital experts to help them craft and curate messages… and to maximise impact, shape opinions, expand their reach and amass more supporters, the two camps (of presidential candidate) have also employed various strategies to influence the agenda before the elections,” Nation.Africa wrote.
In an earlier article published on January 17, the same website wrote that the two main presidential candidates, Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga, were constantly being subjected to relentless campaigns of disinformation designed to disparage them.
“The fake news smear campaign is waged by operatives of the rival coalitions, who are also doctoring polls to give the impression that their preferred candidates are in the lead,” Nation.Africa wrote.
Disinformation as a political campaign tool
This campaign of disinformation and misinformation went on unabated through the campaign period and climaxed on the election day, when vote-counting and tallying commenced, largely as a direct result of the long wait that the country was subjected to before the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) finally declared Dr Ruto the president-elect. Kenyans went to the polls on Tuesday, August 9 2022 and it was until the following Monday, August 12 2022 evening that the electoral body made the announcement – precisely six days of waiting by an anxious nation.
Granted, the outcome of elections, particularly the presidential contest, is always a source of anxiety for the Kenyan public each election year, but this time round, the stress levels among many Kenyans was heightened by this endless wait; a suspended animation of some sort that almost paralysed social activities across the country.
To fuel this anxiety were the bloggers and influencers with massive online following who were used by some candidates or their proxies to spread fake news, propaganda, misinformation, disinformation and defamatory statements against their rivals.
According to the Daily Nation, during the campaign period, bloggers and influencers also engaged in falsehoods through image distortion, wrong translations, use of wrong photos, use of automated bots and creation of parody accounts to impersonated credible individuals, companies and media organisations or even to defame some political actors.
“The fake news smear campaign is waged by operatives of the rival coalitions, who are also doctoring polls to give the impression that their preferred candidates are in the lead, and has become more pronounced in this year’s election as it is increasingly being fought online,” the Daily Nation wrote in an article published online on January 17, 2022.
And immediately the polls closed on election day, the bloggers and influencers went overdrive while taking full advantage of a snail-paced results transmission process by the electoral body, which has since been termed as “opaque” by some dissenting IEBC commissioners.
Matters were aggravated by the fact that while the results kept trickling in from the more than 46,000 polling stations across the country, the electoral body, unlike in previous election years, this time chose not to provide real time updates of provisional results, but rather uploaded all Forms 34A which captured the official presidential results on a portal available on their website for the public and to do the computation and tallying on its own.
The unstated implication here was that electoral body, having been found culpable for the annulment of the presidential election of 2017, wanted to give the electoral process a semblance of transparency and accountability this time round. But this itself morphed into another challenge given that the public, let alone the Kenyan media, was neither equipped nor ready for the herculean task of tallying figures and numbers randomly from so many polling stations.
At the onset, the mainstream media houses in Kenya attempted but failed spectacularly to keep up with the random numbers from the portal. The Kenyan media seemed to realize, belatedly, that just like the public they were similarly ill-equipped and under-resourced for the painstaking process of vote verification and tallying.
In effect, the whole idea of having the presidential election results readily available on the IEBC portal turned into an information dump of massive proportions. Whether this was by default or design is another matter, but the public was left totally in the dark in the six days preceding the electoral commission’s final declaration of the presidential winner.
That left the door wide open for the “digital guns for hire” to embark on yet another round of misinformation and disinformation to fill the void created by the electoral agency. As the country waited for the big announcement with bated breath, the bloggers and influencer kept crunching up the numbers and spewing out “cooked” figures with premature declarations and counter-declarations of victory for either Dr Ruto or Mr Odinga.
On August 15, when Dr Ruto was eventually declared president-elect, one side of the digital combatants scored a major ‘victory’. The digital warfare is, however, far from over with the Supreme Court as the final arbiter in the most bitterly contested presidential election in Kenya. But even after the Supreme Court settles the matter, the bloggers and influencers will certainly seek to further shape public opinion on that judgement.
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