/ 2 March 2022

How a Spanish right-wing group incited a moral storm in Kenya

Kenya Demonstration Religion
Anti-abortion, and pro family activists hold placards during a prayer rally organized by CitizenGo, to protest against an abortion agenda at the ICPD25 (International Conference on Population and Development) being held in Nairobi, on November 14, 2019. (Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images)

In July 2020, Kenya’s upper house of Parliament was debating the Reproductive Health Bill. The bill, introduced by two women MPs – Sarah Kihika and Esther Passaris – sought to expand access to safe medical abortion and other reproductive health services.

It would have been a milestone for women’s rights in the country.

The bill was controversial. A petition against it was delivered to the parliament building in Nairobi, while online it was met with fury, vitriol and trending hashtags such as #StopKihikaAbortionBill.

What was not evident at that time was that this supposed grassroots campaign was apparently being initiated and funded by CitizenGO, a conservative right-wing group based in Spain.

From 6 000 kilometres away, this group allegedly waged a disinformation campaign designed to create a moral storm in Kenya. That’s according to new research by Nairobi-based Odanga Madung of the Mozilla Foundation.

Madung found that about 15 people, thought to be Kenyans, were being paid to operate multiple “sock puppet” accounts on Twitter – designed to hide the identity of their owner – to manipulate the online conversation. They received just $10- $15 per campaign. These campaigns included denigrating Kihika and Passaris, and spreading disinformation about the contents of the proposed reproductive bill and its ramifications.

Madung saw WhatsApp groups with CitizenGO branding where these 15 individuals were given instructions and “media packs”, which showed them in effect how to shut down factual conversations about the bill.

Amid this manufactured outcry, the reproductive bill was withdrawn.

CitizenGo did not respond to The Continent’s request for comment. On its website, the Madrid-based group says that it uses “online petitions and action alerts” to “defend and promote life, family, and liberty”.

Madung said Kenyan social media is especially vulnerable to these kinds of disinformation campaigns. 

“Groups like CitizenGO have an easier time manipulating discourse in Kenya because platforms like Twitter lack the context, the resources, and the will to adequately address disinformation campaigns there.” He said Twitter concentrated on addressing disinformation in the US, where regulators hold more sway.

A Twitter spokesperson told The Continent: “We are investigating the information shared with us by Mozilla Foundation and have permanently suspended more than 240 accounts under our platform manipulation and spam policy.”

The hashtag wars

With a bitterly contested election just a few months away, activists and analysts are already concerned about the impact of similar disinformation campaigns. Madung expects them to “increase significantly” in the run-up to the August vote.

Kenneth Juma, a researcher at the African Population and Health Research Centre, told The Continent that disinformation campaigns by groups such as CitizenGO are “very common”.

He said similar campaigns targeting the East African Community Sexual and Reproductive Health Bill are already happening. “They create hashtags around it, create disinformation on social media and troll members of the East African Legislative Assembly.

Dr Angela Akol, the director of the Ipas Africa Alliance – which aims to end preventable deaths and disabilities from unsafe abortions – said the Mozilla Foundation’s report “demonstrates how quickly misinformation on important public health issues spreads, and confirms that the anti-abortion movement in Kenya is fuelled by overseas organisations. These are dangerous tactics and only serve to harm women.”

Sophie Hodder, the Kenya director of MSI Reproductive Choices, told The Continent that girls and young women were “particularly dependent on digital sites for information about sex and contraception, which may not be freely discussed at home”. In this context, she said, they are seeing the “sometimes even fatal” impact of disinformation.

Meanwhile, CitizenGO appears to still be at it, with a new hashtag campaign against the East African Community’s bill, which would permit abortions when the health of the mother is in danger. 

“The hashtag has all the previous symptoms we’ve mentioned in the report: CitizenGo branded media assets, targeting a specific piece of legislation; and a spike and then fizzle in conversation volume. We have also obtained some WhatsApp evidence on this latest campaign as well which indicates coordinated activity,” said the Mozilla Foundation. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the award-winning pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here