Kenya’s August 2022 general elections is one year away and the political contest for the presidency is already fully underway. Presidential aspirants are busy conducting political rallies, building coalitions of voting blocks and testing political messaging.
Given the high degree of contestation in the upcoming general elections, it comes as no surprise that disinformation campaigns have been launched in a bid to influence public perception and behavior. Disinformation campaigns intentionally disseminate false information with the intent to deceive or mislead the target audience. Social networks and online channels are the preferred means for distributing disinformation, which is particularly effective in Kenya because of the widespread adoption of mobile digital technology.
A recent example of disinformation comes in the form of a short video entitled “How to Make a Tyrant: William Ruto – Kenya” that our analysts came across on WhatsApp on August 6, 2021. The four and a half minute long video appears to be a documentary that mixes still and video footage, often from Kenyan news channels, as well as archival footage covering a variety of past tyrants.
The video purports that William Ruto is following the footsteps of tyrants such as Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi by adopting a two-step rulebook: Rule 1 is to be a man of the people and rule 2 involves inventing a humble backstory. Towards the end of the video, the narrator claims “the classic steps of becoming a tyrant have been fulfilled [by Ruto] except for the last step which requires a good opportunity to strike.”
Before elaborating on the foreboding opportunity alluded to by the narrator sporting an American accent, it is possible to easily debunk this video as a piece of disinformation. Anybody who watches the 10-second long credits will notice too many names and titles for such a short video. Moreover, people may be familiar with the actor Peter Dinklage from the television series Game of Thrones and thus realize that his voice is not the one featured in the anti-Ruto video.
In fact, a quick online search reveals that Dinklage is both the narrator and executive producer of a Netflix documentary series entitled “How to Become a Tyrant” that was released on the streaming service on July 9 this year. The series takes the novel approach of using animation, instead of relying solely on archival footage, to depict the brutality of the six tyrants featured in each of the six episodes. Furthermore, an online article by Newsweek points out that viewers will be familiar with Dinklage’s friendly and well-known voice. As the series also streams in Kenya, leaving the credits in tact was either an egregious oversight by the producers of the altered video, or an obvious pointer that the video should not be taken seriously.
Nevertheless, it is possible that viewers might overlook the credits and be influenced by the false narrative spun in the video. Just like the rulebook mentioned in the original Netflix documentary, the anti-Ruto video follows a typical rulebook for disinformation campaigns.
The content and narrative of this video is clearly politically incentivized, as it aims to: a) discredit a particular politician, b) sow doubt, c) spread a particular narrative, and d) influence the public debate or perceptions. The producers of the anti-Ruto video achieve this through the portrayal of Ruto as a man who has accumulated personal wealth through dubious means and is willing to eliminate any threats against him. The video uses still and video footage of victims of political violence and thereby creates the emotion of fear for anybody watching the terrifying footage misappropriated from Kenyan news channels. A secondary and much more dangerous aim might be to destabilize society by polarizing political and ethnic groups in Kenya. The narrator of the anti-Ruto video unapologetically claims that Ruto produced a tribal genocide never seen before in Kenya when he “turned the Kikuyu community into a scapegoat accusing them of settling in his [Kalenjin] tribal lands and taking economic opportunities away from the people.” This occurred in 2007 when post election violence claimed the lives of 1,133 people, according to the Wafi Commission.
The story arc closes towards the end of the video with the narrator returning to his point made earlier that Ruto’s plan requires just one final “good opportunity to strike” in order to become a full fledged tyrant. This opportunity will involve violence as well as bloodshed and be much worse than when Ruto achieved his last political triumph. Becoming the Deputy President claimed the lives of 300,000 people, according to the narrator, and the implication is that Ruto running for president will result in an even greater calamity for the nation. This disastrous scenario is further fueled with the claim that Ruto is “inciting low-income earners and the unemployed against the middle and upper classes of society” through his hustler nation narrative. Taken together, the video attempts to paint a picture of total anarchy leading up to the election and thereafter, if Ruto becomes the next president.
The timing of the video appears to be opportunistic as it is linked to the recent release of the Netflix documentary and the current political debate about the merits of a bottom-up economic model. It furthermore could portend the start of a sustained political disinformation campaign because one video released so long before election day is unlikely to have any damaging impact. Since the video can so easily be debunked as a piece of disinformation, along with the incredulous falsehoods it propagates, it remains puzzling how its producers ever thought this piece of disinformation could be effective, especially amongst the technology savvy and sophisticated audience of WhatsApp users. Either the producers were extremely amateurish, or there might be a more sinister agenda that becomes obvious as August 9, 2022 approaches.