Twitter has removed more than 240 accounts, after the discovery of a coordinated campaign aiming to spread misinformation around women’s health and reproductive rights in Kenya.
Mozilla Fellow Odanga Madung found evidence that a Spanish-based organization, CitizenGO, pushed 10 hashtags into Twitter’s trending section in Kenya, while the country’s parliament debated the 2020 Reproductive Healthcare Bill and the 2021 Surrogacy Bill.
“The research reveals how a right-wing European organization used Twitter to insert disinformation and inflammatory rhetoric into an important and nuanced regional conversation,” says Madung.
The bills aimed to outlaw forced sterilizations; to make prenatal, delivery and postnatal services free to every woman in the country; and to develop standards, regulations and guidelines on assisted reproduction.
Madung reviewed over 20,000 tweets and interviewed influencers who said they had been paid to tweet, receiving content and instructions from CitizenGO via WhatsApp.
The tweets made false claims around surrogacy and reproductive health, and repeated hashtags, phrases, and memes. Many came from accounts that tweeted nothing but hashtags, and were synchronized for certain times of day.
“Our research suggests that the goal of the campaigns in particular may have been to frustrate any attempts to have factual conversations on the bills that were put forward and to create moral panic around the issues,” reads the report.
“It is a tactic which is likely to be effective in achieving its goal because matters like teenage sexuality, abortion, and surrogacy are hotly contentious public issues in Kenya.”
Last year, Twitter was prompted to remove 100 accounts after previous research from Mozilla revealed disinformation campaigns promoting a government-backed bill to amend Kenya’s constitution, known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).
However, Madung believes that Twitter’s trending algorithm is simply too easy to manipulate. He is calling for the company to carry out country-specific risk assessments, partner with fact checkers and civil society organizations and collaborate with researchers in each region. The company should also provide more clarity and information around its trending algorithm.
“Twitter lacks the cultural context, the staff, and the will to confront this problem. This problem will only grow more severe ahead of Kenya’s 2022 federal election,” says Madung.
“These groups have made it clear that they intend to have a hand in our politics. It’s crucial that Twitter addresses the problem before then.”