At the weekend, government-run Uganda Media Centre chief executive Ofwono Opondo penned a stinging and not-so-palatable critic on Buganda king and the smoking question of Mailo land.
Soon, Twitter was aflame with hundreds of firebombs from, especially Ugandans on Twitter, attacking Opondo. It was not clear whether the attacks were organised or even paid for. But what was clear is that the attacks were haphazard, with many Twitter users just firing off their tweets for the love of attacking the controversial ruling party loud-mouth, Opondo.
But such popular cyber armies are reportedly becoming a new tool to shape narratives, fight political, legal, and business wars on social media. Such hired social media users dubbed influencers are reportedly running dark schemes that promote propaganda and blackmail, and have been around in the business for quite some time now.
On October 14, 2019, John Does, a legal team of US-based social media company Twitter, emailed a section of Ugandan Twitter users, informing them of a subpoena or court order, issued to them with an intention to disclose their account details.
The court action by dfcu Bank against John Does, filed in the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, USA, claimed there was a group of Ugandan Twitter users running a syndicated campaign against dfcu Bank Uganda.
In an email to the accused Twitter users for prior preparation of any issues that would arise, John Does notified the said Twitter users would be obligated to produce basic subscriber information related to their accounts.
“Twitter has not disclosed any information regarding your account at this time. However, we wanted to bring this matter to your attention. Please be advised that Twitter may be obligated to produce basic subscriber information related to your account in the future,” the email read in part.
A source, who is part of the group listed in the suit, revealed on grounds of anonymity that he and others, were paid to run syndicated tweets against dfcu Bank between January 2018 and 2019.
“I was paid to run several tweets, but I don’t know what the motive was. I later realised other fellow social media influencers were running similar tweets in the same period and at the same time,” he said.
The said syndicated tweets came hot on the heels of court cases against dfcu Bank over alleged irregularities in the takeover of a local bank.
Much as Twitter has been used to influence legal causes and businesses, the platform has also been used by unscrupulous individuals who use social media influencers to run syndicated tweets that target individuals, politicians and rival businesses.
Similar image-breaking activities are reportedly run on Facebook, which is currently banned in Uganda, as well on YouTube and WhatsApp platforms.
Political propaganda, blackmail
Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze says there are groups of rising cyber armies used by political groups and individuals.
She says their agenda is to frustrate debate and influence narratives that work for their interests. She says the financiers of such schemes target unemployed youth, who they pay to influence their agenda.
“Cyber armies are on the rise and they’re everywhere, including the presidency. It all started with musicians using the Internet to fight one another, but right now, it has invaded politics,” she notes.
Darren Mugisha, a social media influencer, who chooses not to reveal his social media handles, said rival factions hired influencers to disapprove messages of rival political candidates during the recent race for Speaker of Parliament.
He says it was the same case during the recently concluded general election.
“We were given pre-designed messages and videos from rival camps, which we shared on various platforms through mostly Tweeter and Facebook.
Render Namanya, another top social media influencer and passes as Unemployed Youth on Twitter, says Twitter is used as a battleground for shaping political narratives.
He says each political camp and individual politicians are using influencers and people with huge following to push their messages.
“It is a game of trending and no one cares what kind of information they push out there. Each tweet put out is paid for and at the end of the day, you can’t rule out blackmail,” he adds.
Another social media influencer, who spoke to Sunday Monitor on grounds that he is not named, says influencing or blackmailing is the new normal.
He says influencers are used to leveraging sympathy in the court of public opinion.
“Individuals use social media to influence court process. People do have legal teams but also hire media people, influencers, news websites and mainstream media, as well to run syndicated stories,” he adds.
“Their role is to promote biases in the court of public opinion and win sympathy,” the influencer says.
The influencers’ other task is to popularise outcomes of a court ruling should it be ruled in their favour, or be planning to stage an appeal.
“An influencer has the sole job to share information related to the case. Actually, most of the contents they share is pre-designed and their job is to copy and paste as is shared by the party hiring them, although those who are smarter do deeper reading and even add references,” he adds.
How trends work
Tech enthusiast Pius Jadwar notes that social media works with impressions and what impresses will appear in people’s feeds and hence the term trending. He says the impressions can be positive or negative.
John Laban Ssenkindu, an influencer, explains that for the case of platforms such as Twitter, it works with algorithms where it determines which topics are the most discussed via Twitter users at any given time.
“It’s a case of presence and numbers of particular topic and the most popular topics are known as ‘trending topics’. This can include popular events, which are flagged in the trends section,” Ssenkindu explains.
He says on Twitter, a topic that is mentioned at a greater rate than others is said to be a ‘trending topic’.
“Trending topics become popular either through a concerted effort by users or because of an event that prompts people to talk about a specific topic,” he says.
Ssenkindu says because it calls for numbers, clients look for those who are active and have huge following to work with.
He says payments for such are determined by the power of negotiation.
He says most influencers charge Shs50,000 per day for clients who offer more days, or charge Shs15,000 per tweet for business tweets.
Havens for misinformation
Unlike Twitter where it calls for concerted efforts by a number of people to aggregate posts, there are individual influencers who use Facebook and YouTube to stream live visual content.
Several Facebook and YouTube channels have been accused of spreading falsehood and blackmail.
Popular among these is one Fred Kajjubi Lumbuye, who has reportedly aired false information on both Facebook and YouTube.
Recently, a one Jamilu Ssekyondwa, a resident of Luweero District, was arrested for reportedly falsely declaring President Museveni dead.
Facebook and politics
On January 11, Facebook shut down Uganda government-linked Facebook accounts over alleged misuse.
Facebook noted that a network connected with the Ministry of Information had been using fake and duplicate accounts to impersonate users and boost the popularity of posts.
In retaliation, President Museveni banned Facebook in the country, accusing the owners of being arrogant.
He accused Facebook of being against the government of Uganda by closing some of its accounts.
He said Facebook has no right to say who is good and who is bad in Uganda.
“Facebook decided to block NRM message centres,” Museveni said in his speech, referring to the ruling NRM party.
The accounts that were suspended belonged to the President’s mobilisers, who included Ashburg Kato, Andrew Mukasa, alias Bajjo and Jennifer Nakanguubi, alias Full Figure, among others.
Social media statistics for Uganda
DataReportal, a data, insights, and trends aggregator, puts at about 3.4 million social media users in Uganda as of January 2021.
The number of social media users in Uganda increased by 900 thousand (+36 per cent) between 2020 and 2021.
This constitutes about 7.3 per cent of the total population as of January 2021.
But data obtained from Global stats counter indicates that of the 3.4 million social media users in Uganda, 68.79 per cent use Twitter, 6.42 per cent Facebook, 6.08 per cent YouTube, 1.91 per cent Instagram, and the rest constitute other platform users.