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Rogue internet cops: The dark side of sponsored hashtags

By Frankline Sunday | April 18th 2017
By Frankline Sunday | April 18th 2017

There is no doubt that social media bloggers or influencers have become very powerful. But they are also dangerous - the cyber-axis of evil.

Their influence surpasses that of the traditional media. Commonly known as ‘Internet cops’, they dictate and sway public opinion. Even presidents and CEOs quake when they are criticised or turn against them.

Though known to be good critics when on the people’s side, they can be turncoats and propagandist when used to lie and abuse the privileges bestowed upon them by the public. They have ‘arrived’ at a time when world is not prepared for them.

Their powerful stature has seen firms and CEOS ‘buy them out’ to maintain superb online presence. You disagree with them and they destroy the reputation you’ve build for ages.

They engage in a manner that is intimidating as they demand for answers. What some victims have learnt is that you don’t try to mess-up with them or they will crush you like a bug with their sheer networking power.

They operate with impunity outside any regulation framework with the existing rules inadequate to tame their power.

The digital revolution has given us an endless assortment of powerful communication vehicles. Every day a new social media channel, digital platform or popular app is born.

News channels

The changing communication landscape is not unique to Kenya. Social media influencers have raised millions in donations, fought with more than three African countries in as many months, called out international cable news channels for inappropriate coverage.

They even forced the country’s leaders including President Uhuru Kenyatta to issue official statements. Twitter is especially relished by social marketers and political campaigners for its ability to broadcast small, headline-like bits of information to an infinitely large number of people instantly.

This is of great importance at a time when Kenya’s politics is headed for General Elections on August 8, 2017. Over the years, increased competition to attract new users and maintain existing ones within the respective enclaves has heightened competition between companies such as Facebook, Twitter and SnapChat.

Despite having a large captive audience, these firms still earn the bulk of their revenue from advertising hence a need to convince advertisers that users are staying on their sites longer every time they log in. In the early days of Facebook and Twitter, the flow of information on one’s newsfeed or timeline was organic; one would see a stream of posts from their friends starting with the most recent ones.

All the posts would be visible and to see what your friends and relatives were up to, all you had to do was scroll down the feed. However, social media companies have now developed sophisticated algorithms that ‘learn’ the social media patterns of each user and curate their social media feeds according to these perceived preferences. Simply illustrated, if you like several links and posts about sports bungee jumping on Facebook for example, you will notice more articles and ads about bungee jumping coming up on your timeline the next time you log in.

This customisation ensures users are isolated in ‘islands’ together with other users who share the same preferences. They are then fed continuous loops of content that reinforces their beliefs and attitudes. In addition to changes in the ranking system of social media posts, new algorithms introduced in Twitter and Facebook over the past few years curate tweets by geography - making it easier for users to make local topics trend.

Twitter says trending topics are determined by an algorithm, and by default, tailored based on what users follow, their interests, and location.

“This algorithm identifies topics that are popular now, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help you discover the hottest emerging topics of discussion on Twitter,” explains the company in a statement on its website.

This has been good for communication agents looking to reach a large number of people within a short time with as little cost as possible. Influencer marketing - employing the services of individuals with high follower counts on social media to drive visibility and chatter around a product or service being marketed- is one of the ways brands and increasingly politicians are ensuring they remain top on the list of discussion topics online.

Caroline Mwangi is one of the early adaptors who has leveraged on influencer marketing and works as both an agent who connects influencers to brands and also takes on several digital marketing campaigns personally.

“A client will approach me with an existing or new product they want to create awareness around and my work is to find the appropriate individuals who match the brand image and hire them to push the product,” she explains.

Ms Caroline states that influencer marketing works especially for startups or firms with relatively smaller marketing budgets. “The number and influence of the individuals I agree to work with on a campaign depends on the needs of the client and how much money they are willing to pay,” she explains.

Typically, users with more than 7,000 followers on Twitter and more than 3,000 on Instagram can be influencers.

Active influencers

The more users an influencer has on their social media network the more money they stand to make depending on how active and strategic they are on social media.

Active influencers can make upwards of Sh50,000 each month. Enter the Robots. These dynamics have spawned a micro-industry of influencers and a network of fake social media accounts and dubious blogs that are growing their following as the country approaches the August 8th general elections.

A number of influencers who have majored in politics have further established blogs where they aggregate their propaganda campaigns with content that heeds little mind to grammar, facts and sometimes logic.

Some of the sensational headlines include; “Anti-Porn Police” Ezekiel Mutua Calls for Special Police Unit on Sex Exploitation found on mirror site standardnewskenya.com.

Controversial blogger Cyprian Nyakundi has mastered the craft of sensationalist headlines with click baits such as How ‘Prostitutes’ in Parliament Cleared .... a Principal Secretary.

The Financial Standard spoke to a several influencers and bloggers who have built notoriety around themselves in the past few months for aggressively pushing sponsored campaigns on social media. Most of these individuals spoke to us on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from their clients from both sides of the political divide.

The amount of time it takes for one to round up influencers and launch a trending topic is shockingly simple.

“It depends on how often you want to trend but we can guarantee someone trends twice a week between now and the nomination date, for example,” one with more than 33,000 followers on Twitter explained to me.

Another influencer with more than 45,000 followers explained to me that influencers can either bill their clients per session or give a bulk figure to cover a sustained campaign over a period of time. “The cost will go for between Sh5,000 and Sh10, 000 depending on the news cycle and who the person is because some people are easier to trend than others,” he explained. “I also do not do it alone and we can be between five and ten of us depending on how much money the client is willing to spend,” he explained.

Intense competitions between politicians over the nomination period and towards the August 8th general elections have brought a windfall for influencers struggling to keep up with the emerging tide of demand for their services.

To ensure higher rates of success and maximise on earnings, more tech savvy influencers have developed social media bots – robots that create artificial impressions to help drive engagement and traffic.

Social media bots mimic the behaviour of humans online and they can seek out key words and engage with human accounts often oblivious to many users.

Influencer marketing works especially for startups or firms with relatively smaller marketing budgets.

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