A US-based digital advertising firm, Harris Media, was behind two websites -‘The Real Raila‘ (the hate website which has since been taken down though its Twitter account has not been deleted) and ‘Uhuru for Us‘ (a softer site which showcased Uhuru Kenyatta’s accomplishments as president which has also since been deleted down).
The social media accounts for ‘Uhuru for Us’ – both Twitter and Facebook – are still active unlike ‘The Real Raila’ handle which was last updated in August.
(TOP: A screenshot of a propaganda image posted on The Real Raila twitter page on August 8, the day of the first election which was later nullified by the Supreme Court).
An investigation conducted by Privacy International reveals that in the run-up to Kenya’s presidential election in August 2017 – which pitted Uhuru Kenyatta, the incumbent Jubilee candidate, against Raila Odinga, the flagbearer for the opposition NASA coalition – paid advertisements for the two sites dominated Google searches for election-related terms and flooded Kenyans’ social media feeds.
“All linked back to either ‘The Real Raila’, a virulent attack campaign alleging that a government headed by opposition leader Raila Odinga would ‘remove whole tribes’, or to ‘Uhuru for Us’, a softer site showcasing the President’s accomplishments… The two ‘grassroots’ campaigns were created by Harris Media LLC, an American far right digital media company, for President Kenyatta’s campaign, as revealed by a new Privacy International investigation published today. Harris Media’s previous clients include US President Trump’s campaign, the anti-immigration and anti-Islam campaign Secure America Now, and the nationalist parties AfD in Germany and Front National in France,” stated Privacy International, a UK-based NGO.
Harris Media uses data analytics to target audiences using information gleaned from how people use their social media accounts, which raises serious concerns about the role and responsibility of companies working for political campaigns in Kenya, in which tribal affiliation and region of origin are particularly politically sensitive data, and volatile “coded language” was widely deployed. It also highlights the risks inherent in voter profiling and targeting in a country with no data protection law, adds the statement.
Dr Gus Hosein, Executive Director of Privacy International said: “Our new investigation points to a growing problem – the lack of transparency over how individuals are profiled and targeted for political campaign messages. Harris Media’s campaigns for President Kenyatta relied on ad words in Google search and apparently targeted advertising on a range of social media platforms. How was targeting done for Harris Media’s Kenyan campaigns, and using what kind of personal data? Did the factors used to target messages include tribal affiliation or other politically sensitive criteria, which would be a particularly irresponsible and divisive strategy? The fact that we cannot currently answer these questions – and that we do not know how these specific ads were targeted, raises serious concerns about accountability and transparency. It leaves unanswered important questions as to how such data will be stored, who will have access to it, and what it will be used for. We believe all companies who worked for presidential candidates in the Kenyan elections have a responsibility to disclose the nature of their business to the people of Kenya.”
Harris Media’s Real Raila and Uhuru for Us campaigns relied on ad words in Google search and apparently targeted advertising on a range of social media platforms. This raises serious concerns about the role and responsibility of companies working for political campaigns in Kenya’s volatile political climate, particularly considering ‘The Real Raila’s’ incendiary claims include that rival opposition candidate Raila Odinga’s administration would “remove whole tribes”, for example. It also highlights the risks inherent to voter profiling and micro-targeting in a country with no data protection laws.
Another tactic used by Harris Media, according to the Privacy International investigation, is the judicious use of Google Adwords. This explains why paid-for ads for The Real Raila and Uhuru For Us emerged above the search results for many Kenyan election-related search terms. As of 2015, an advertiser could use personal information held by them, such as email addresses, to target customers using Google’s ad service.
The Privacy International report notes that Facebook, Twitter, and Google do not just facilitate ‘better’ targeting but also actively shape campaign communication through their close collaboration with political staffers, according to one academic study.
“The Real Raila and another site which links back to Uhuru for Us, Candidates for Kenya, share an IP address with Harris Media’s own website and over 30 conservative campaigns. These include the websites for the Republican Party of Texas, pro-fracking and oil industry lobbies, and a Benghazi attack conspiracy theory site, among others. The Real Raila’s Google Analytics tag (UA-46042337), is shared with several known Harris Media campaigns. A tag is a piece of data-collecting code assigned to a website by its creator to collect visitor behaviour information. The Uhuru for Us site (UA-51987218) also shares its tag with 39 other conservative websites, several of which are publicly attributed to Harris Media,” adds the report.
“Three Harris Media staff, including Josh Canter, the firm’s VP for content production, an account director, and a designer worked on The Real Raila site, authoring blog content, mostly republishing lightly-sourced characterisations of Odinga as a dangerous, racist xenophobe with promoting his tribe and family as his primary political aim. The Uhuru For Us Twitter account still appears linked to a Harris Media email address. Created in March 2017, its first follower was Kenyatta’s Digital Media Strategist.”