#DearAgaKhan: A Coordinated Campaign To Undermine Trust In The Media

Social media has been rightly described as a public square due to the diversity of ideas and views that reflect and sometimes inform public opinion. While this is a strength of social networks, it also provides fertile ground for propaganda and misinformation that can shift public opinion on issues and individuals. 

As more people get their news and information onlinen and on social media, mainstream media is increasingly playing catch up, but still retains a great deal of trust. Social media has flattened the media landscape, but mainstream media is still able to shape public discourse to some extent.

As a direct consequence of this, mainstream media in Kenya has increasingly been the target of criticism from politicians, who have made repeated accusations of bias against stories they consider inaccurate and that portray them in a negative light. 

Previously, the attacks on the media were physical, with verbal threats, and in some instances, physical harm done to journalists in their line of duty. These attacks have increasingly shifted to the digital space, playing out in the avenues of information that many Kenyans are getting their news. 

One worrying example of this is a coordinated trend using posts with the hashtags #DearAgaKhan alongside the words ‘matope media’ and ‘nifungie nyama’ to tarnish the image of Nation Media Group on X for a few hours in the morning of February 1, 2024. In this case, the clear goal was to intensify the public’s distrust of traditional media in Kenya.

The Narrative 

The posts with the #DearAgaKhan hashtag contained edited videos and images of President Ruto, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua and Public Service CS Moses Kuria criticising Nation Media Group in the past, accusing them of being anti-government and pushing a pro-opposition agenda.. 

For context, His Highness the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslim community, founded the Nation Media Group in 1960, and it has since grown to be the largest independent media organization in East Africa. The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development is the largest individual shareholder in NMG, with 48.67% of shares held. The #DearAgaKhan hashtag therefore appears to target the Fund, and the Aga Khan by extension.

One such post contains images discrediting Nation’s reporting, portraying it as toilet paper, trash in a dustbin, burning in a fire, and being used to wrap potato chips, a common practice in fast food restaurants, all of which have been used to chastise the media in the past.

Visual references to previous attacks against the media

The text in the post reads, “President Ruto’s accusations of bias and unfair coverage against Nation Media Group add to the ongoing scrutiny of the media outlet’s editorial practices.” 

The text in the caption is a copy-and-paste version of another comment using the same hashtag and pushing the same narrative on a different post also shared on February 1, 2024. 

In addition to using videos and sketches to drive this narrative, the posts also made misleading claims that Nation Media Group had faced complaints filed through the Media Council of Kenya. 

Post with #RIPNationMedia hashtag

Other posts stated that the Media Council of Kenya (MCK) found “bias with the Azimio candidate receiving more publicity than the Kenya Kwanza Alliance candidate”, attempting to discredit Nation’s coverage of the 2022 general election. This claim is false, because the Media Council noted that media coverage during the elections was professional. 181 other posts contained this false claim with some being direct copy and paste captions. 

Videos shared under the hashtags were similar in all posts. Three of the six videos shared across these posts contained altered headlines and used the templates of popular media organizations. One of the six is a viral video of Tourism CS Moses Kuria condemning Nation Media but with an altered caption. In the posts, the altered video’s caption reads Nation Media Ni Matope while the legitimate broadcast on Citizen TV reads ‘Kuria wants all Government Advertisement to NMG Cancelled’.

Captions used in the videos posted alongside #DearAgaKhan were an altered version of the original

The actors

130 accounts used the hashtag #DearAgaKhan in over 5,000 mentions in posts and reposts shared majorly between 8AM and 9PM on February 1, 2024. 

Visualization of the number of times #DearAgaKhan was mentioned between January 31 and February 3, 2024. 
Source: Code for Africa

Also trending on the same day were the phrases Matope Media (mud media) and Nifungie Nyama (wrap my meat), which had similar patterns and were used by 129 and 249 accounts respectively. The data points to a coordinated attack on Nation Media Group’s credibility, and it bears the hallmarks of a coordinated inauthentic campaign. 

Coordinated inauthentic networks use posts with similar language to drive a narrative that is often destructive to a brand or a community. However, instead of actual people tweeting as is in regular online conversations, these conversations are driven by a small number of people with a motive, either ideological or financial, operating multiple accounts simultaneously. 

This particular network consists of hundreds of accounts that appear to be regularly used for hatchet jobs and brand promotions on X. Upon analysing the activity of one of the accounts, @africmumke_ with over 8,970 followers, one can see that the account exhibits little to no activity typical of real accounts. Firstly, the account’s username does not contain information that can be traced back to actual identities, which is characteristic of fake profiles that are part of troll factories

This specific account was involved in at least five other promotional and political hashtags between April 4 and April 14, 2024 – #KALROSPLaunch24, #ScrambleforGEMA, #UhuruShutUp, #NotAnotherKenyatta, and #FixingUhurusMess.

Previous posts by @africmumke_

Another account @NyumuRobberts shared the hashtag #DearAgaKhan in 24 posts on February 1, 2024. The same account has been used to circulate a misleading hashtag #KeitanySCREWLinturi, and a fake digital card which falsely claimed that Africa Uncensored and The Star published articles implicating Aldai MP Maryann Keitany in the recent counterfeit fertiliser scandal that has rocked Kenya. 

Posts shared by @NyumuRobberts on February 1, 2024, with fake digital posters with an unverified narrative

The digital posters copied templates from reputable news websites like Citizen Digital in their news alerts. Images used here, here and here could not be found on Citizen Digital, Kenyans.co.ke and The Standard’s official social media pages.

More fake posts shared by @NyumuRobberts on February 1, 2024

This account has also been used to publish more political influence campaigns such as #GovtFraudsterUnveiled, #DidRutoDoIt and #UhuruShutUp. All three of these hashtags either had a false narrative or they were pushing smear campaigns. In one instance, the account cites a fake news article purportedly by The Financial Times alongside the hashtag #UhuruShutUp, claiming that the US was investigating Kenya’s $2.75 billion Euro Bond. The article was debunked as fake by the Financial Times US-China correspondent Demetri Sevastopulo, whose name was on the image as the author. 

Impact

This isn’t the only online attack Nation Media Group has faced in 2024. The media house has previously addressed claims circulated using a different hashtag, #RIPNationMedia, pushing a similar narrative on February 9, 2024. In their response, the Nation termed the attack as cowardly, owing to its faceless but ferocious nature. Those posts also used the same videos used in the #DearAgaKhan hashtag such as this one used here of President Ruto with the caption reading Matope Media. The original video was shared on June 21, 2024, and it bears the caption ‘President Ruto at WRC Rally’. 

Another altered image with an altered caption from a clip used alongside #DearAgaKhan

Such copy-pasted posts are characteristic of troll farms pushing a narrative, and it is therefore important to analyse the impact they may have. 

The Media Council of Kenya’s State of Kenyan Media 2022 report found that about 33% of the Kenyan population identified television as their main news source, down from 47% in 2020. Over the same period, the proportion getting their news mainly from social media rose from 10% in 2020 to 24% in 2021, declining to 18% in 2022. 

Paradoxically, the proportion of respondents watching television increased from 73% to 80% over the same period, meaning that more people were watching television, but fewer were trusting it as a source of information. Public distrust of the media overall increased between 2020 and 2022, as the proportion of those with little to no trust in media rose 19% and 32% respectively. 

 

Kenyans’ main source of news Source: The State of Kenya’s Media in 2022 audience survey
Trends in media consumption in Kenya Source: The State of Kenya’s Media in 2022 audience survey
Level of trust in media Source: The State of Kenya’s Media in 2022 audience survey

What this data shows is that mainstream media is losing its audience’s trust, which could be a consequence of the attacks that Kenyan media outlets have experienced. They have repeatedly been accused of bias and false reporting when they cover issues of national importance, often as a way to dismiss unfavourable coverage. 

The ‘fake news’ accusations are clearly meant to sow doubt and distrust in the media, effectively weaponising the work they do in order to coerce them to stay silent, and this tactic may be working. 

Campaigns such as the one attacking Nation Media Group using altered images and false information are aimed at discrediting journalists and the truth they report. While this is not a new tactic, given previous attempts to shift the conversation on reproductive healthcare, fake fertilizer and how the media covers religious figures, these campaigns often take the air out of important national conversations quickly and shift attention elsewhere. The weaponization of social media in this way is a clear affront to press freedom, a fact not lost on actors such as Cambridge Analytica, who in the past have been able to develop and implement strategies to influence public perception. These constant attacks are a clear attempt to gag the media indirectly by making them, rather than the subjects they cover, the topic of conversation, and the resulting loss of trust is not just concerning, but a matter that should be treated with utmost concern.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article identified Moses Kuria as the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism rather than Public Service. This error is highly regretted.

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