By Vimal Shah
Twitter has been hit with yet another human rights concern after research conducted by Odanga Madung from Mozilla. The research ascertained that CitizenGO, a Spanish-based organization manipulated Twitter conversations to spread misinformation about surrogacy and other reproductive issues.
CitizenGO is a Spanish organization that presents itself as a community of active citizens working together to defend anti-choice movements. Its founder is Ignacio Arsuaga. The organization has close ties with Spain’s far-right wing through its association with the Vox Party. It has been labeled an anti-immigrant, anti-gender, climate denialist party by the BBC, and was found to have been running a Super PAC during the 2019 Spanish national elections. It has also been linked to far-right movements in Italy, Hungary, and Germany. Additionally, one of CitizenGO’s board members was sentenced to four years in prison in January 2021 on corruption charges, and the organization has also been accused of presenting misleading information regarding how it funds its operations.
The research employed the use of Twitter’s Firehose (a real-time streaming API that delivers compliance events that occur on the Twitter platform) to review over 20,000 tweets posted between 2020 and 2021. A total of 11 campaigns pushed by CitizenGO were identified, ten out of which were featured on Twitter’s trending topics.
Examples of trending topics were #celebratingAnnkioko, #Istandwithcitizengo, #stopkihikaabortionbill, #Notoabortionincovid19, #passarisabortionkills, #stopsurrogacybillKE, #notoabortionKE, #citizengoatthesenate, #STOPabortionUNCSW and #KihikaAbortionBillSuspended.
According to sources Madung interacted with, some Twitter users in Kenya were paid by CitizenGo to tweet content provided to them through WhatsApp.
“We managed to extensively interview three Kenyan “disinformation influencers” on phone and through WhatsApp, who claim to have been paid between $10 -$15 ( Ksh.1,138 – Ksh. 1,707) per campaign by individuals working for CitizenGO.
They hold that about 15 individuals with multiple sock puppet (an alternative online identity) accounts on Twitter participated in these campaigns.
The influencers shared screenshots from WhatsApp groups that bore CitizenGO’s name and branding, which they would coordinate.
These groups appeared to hold two functions: one, they were the command center of the campaign where instructions and media packs were shared with influencers; secondly, they coordinated the progress of the campaign.
In many cases, these tweets shared false information on reproductive health and bills in what appears to be an attempt to mislead the public. One, for instance, labeled the Reproductive Health Bill ‘an abortion bill’ despite several researchers and rights observers arguing that the bill upheld the existing constitution.
Additionally, #stopsurrogacybillKE campaign which was trending on November 19, 2020, shared quite a number of misinformation around health. (See screengrabs below).
Some of these campaigns targeted Kenyan politicians and activists like Nairobi’s Woman Representative Esther Passaris and Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika, who advocate for the Reproductive Healthcare Bill, the 2021 Surrogacy Bill, and reproductive rights at large. These bills look to outlaw forced sterilizations; make prenatal, delivery and postnatal services free to every Kenyan woman and develop standards, regulations and guidelines on assisted reproduction.
Some went as far as claiming that surrogate children were more likely to display behavioral and emotional problems. This claim was disputed by the African Population Health Research Center (APHRC).
Kenneth Juma, an APHRC researcher, said in an email, “these claims are false and lack any scientific backing. Most of these misleading statements prey on the lack of awareness among the people.” He went on to add that published research evidence has discounted these claims.
“While there are risks of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), studies found no evidence of an increase in behavioral or cognitive problems in children born of IVF. And where there were neurodevelopmental disorders, they may also stem from low birth weight or multiple fetuses.”
In 2021, the Surrogacy Bill tabled in parliament proposed the formation of guidelines on assisted reproduction to establish and maintain a confidential national database of persons receiving or providing services, sperms, eggs, and embryos, among other functions.
Again, staunch objections to the bill were launched. This time, anti-abortion campaigners claimed that the bill would transform Kenya into “a baby manufacturing hub” and that “the practice of surrogacy is the equivalent of buying and selling of children.” However, unlike the Reproductive Healthcare Bill, this one was passed by parliament and will likely be debated at Kenya’s Senate this year.
The tweets reviewed had signs of malice which included repeated hashtags, phrases, and memes. Most from accounts that only shared tweets at certain times of the day. They also have participated in previous disinformation campaigns Madung had been investigating.
Madung’s research reveals how foreign entities use Twitter to manipulate pertinent issues in a regional conversation. It revealed how a right-wing European organization used Twitter to insert disinformation and inflammatory rhetoric into a nuanced regional conversation. It also revealed how Twitter lacks a cultural context, the staff, to confront the problem.
In recent years Twitter has been in the spotlight for its lack of cultural context and the will to confront such problems. In Nigeria, Twitter was officially banned from June 21, 2021 to January 13, 2022 for deleting President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet. The ban was condemned by Amnesty International, the British, Canadian, and Swedish diplomatic missions to Nigeria, as well as the United States and the European Union in a joint statement (see screengrab below)
CitizenGO’s case shows the kind of vulnerabilities that platforms like Twitter create in Kenya. Twitter has often claimed that it wants to create a platform where healthy conversations can happen. However, what such do is strip these conversations off the facts and create a moral panic, stifling any progress legislators seek to make on reproductive healthcare rights.
According to Kenneth Juma, disinformation campaigns take advantage of the lack of awareness on these issues and attempt to legislate around them. Most Kenyan women turn to social media platforms to seek information on reproductive health. This calls for measures to improve how these platforms handle disinformation around healthcare.
The rate and method in which these campaigns happened suggest that some of the tweets around reproductive health were a product of a manipulation campaign.
As Peter Tatchell, British human rights campaigner puts it;
“the far-right exploit platforms to get away with poisonous claims which stir fear and hatred that are then engineered into witch hunts and repressive legislation. Such social media campaigns are cheaper to run than traditional media advertising for they tend to get more bang for bucks if they can bypass the local press to reach people.”
Twitter responded to this issue by permanently suspending more than 240 related accounts.
It says, “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. Our work to combat inauthentic virality and fake influencer accounts is long-running. Since 2020, we have permanently suspended more than 600,000 accounts found to violate our rules in this manner.”
The report also projects the growth of such cases in upcoming Kenya’s 2022 General elections because of the clearly vested interest in Kenyan political affairs. It is therefore prudent for Twitter to jump ahead of the situation before the damage is already done.